Scourge 19.7

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The heroes found positions and opened fire on Echidna.  The difference in this and the fighting as it had been before was noticeable.  Small, but noticeable.  Capes weren’t communicating and teamwork was faltering as a result.  Capes like the red lightning girl and Chronicler were struggling to find people to use their powers on.

I didn’t want anyone else running or flying headlong into the thread, so I gathered my more harmless and useless bugs in a thick cluster around each piece of thread, until each thread appeared to be a black bar a half-foot across.

Clockblocker appeared at my side.  He was in fighting shape, though he didn’t look it with his damaged costume.

“Anything I can do?” he asked.  “Anything else set up?”

I shook my head.  “She dissolves the thread if it touches her flesh, and things are too frenetic.  Someone would get hurt.”

“Gotcha,” he said.

He didn’t move from where he was standing.  A minute passed as Echidna was bombarded.  She wasn’t quite at full fighting strength, she didn’t have many capes to clone, and she was apparently hesitant to charge or make any sudden movements with the possibility of there being more thread.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  Clockblocker asked.

“That I had something in mind?” I asked.  “I guess a part of me thought that maybe if you figured out what I was doing, you wouldn’t have frozen the gun.”

“That’s not fair.  I don’t think I’ve given you any reason to think I’m vindictive like that.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “Maybe I didn’t want you to give her a tell, or do something that Eidolon might notice.  I’m not sure why, not entirely.”

“So you’re not really doing anything that those guys out there aren’t.  When it comes down to it, you’re suspicious of us, just like we are of each other.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “It’s… a lot to take in.  What do you even do from here on out?”

“I don’t know,” Clockblocker said.

A series of neon green concentric circles exploded outward from a point in the sky above, rippling out to disappear over each horizon.  Eidolon had engaged one Alexandria-clone, and whatever he’d done seemed to have finished her off.  One left.

Echidna belched out a mass of clones, and I added my bugs to the firepower that the heroes threw their way.

Some slipped past the loose perimeter the heroes had established, and were promptly gunned down.

“I’m guessing Tattletale told you the particulars of my power?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The range?  I’m surprised you knew it would work through interconnected pieces.  Hell, I barely knew I’d be able to push that far.  I guess that makes this one of the rare days my power’s working at peak efficiency?  But you somehow knew that?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Tattletale.  She was getting out of the van, and was joined by Faultline, Labyrinth, and four members of the Travelers: Sundancer, Ballistic, Genesis in her wheelchair and a blond boy who resembled but didn’t quite match Oliver in appearance.  Tattletale was exchanging words with Regent.  Getting an update?

“You’re not responding,” Clockblocker noted.

“I”m not sure what you want me to say.”

Yes, Clockblocker,” he added a falsetto note to his voice, bent one wrist to a ninety degree angle as he raised his hand to his mouth, “Of course we know more about how your powers work than you do.  How else would we kick your posteriors with such frequency?

He faked a high society woman’s laugh, where the laugh was said as much as it was uttered.  A cape nearby, one I recognized as Astrologer from the New York team, shot us a dirty look, before she returned to calling down projectiles from the sky.

“I don’t sound like that,” I commented, trying not to sound as irritated as I felt.

“I thought it fit pretty well for one of the wealthy crime lords of Brockton Bay,” he said.

I was a little caught off guard, to see this side of Clockblocker, or more that he was showing it to me.  Was it humor as a coping mechanism?  Or attempted humor as a coping mechanism, to be more on target?  I could believe it, from the guy who’d chosen Clockblocker as his cape name.  But to let me see anything other than the hard-nosed defender of the peace was something different.  A show of trust, letting his guard down some?

Or maybe it was just a coping mechanism, and he had a hell of a lot to cope with.  Only an hour ago, he’d probably felt he had his whole future laid out for him, a career in the Wards transitioning into a career with the Protectorate, with funds, fame and every side benefit and piece of paper he might need to mask his real identity.  Now nobody had any idea how that would work out.

Another circle exploded across the sky.  Alexandria-clone-two was down.  Legend and Eidolon descended in Echidna’s direction, keeping a healthier distance.

Whatever Eidolon had been hitting the clones with, considering the area it was covering and the fact that it was apparently taking Alexandria out of action, it suggested a kind of attack that couldn’t be used near the ground, because it might have leveled whole sections of the city.

Tattletale caught up to me.  The others in her retinue hung back.

“Was that you two?” she asked.  She pointed at Echidna, where the right and left sides of the monster’s body weren’t quite lined up.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You realize that if you pull off the dramatic sacrifice, Grue won’t be able to take it?  He’s relying on you to be his crutch for the time being.  You can’t kick it out from under him mid-step.”

“He’s stronger than you’re saying,” I murmured.  I eyed Clockblocker, all too aware that he was listening in.  Tattletale was aware, too, which meant she was trying to communicate something.  “Can we finish this discussion elsewhere?”

“Why don’t I just leave you alone?” Clockblocker offered.  “I wanted to make myself available in case you wanted to repeat the maneuver, but you’re saying that’s not so doable.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “But thank you.”

“Signal me if you need me,” he answered.

Alexandria had a steel, fire-scorched girder in her hands, retrieved from a fallen building nearby.  She wasn’t flying, but she walked forward, relying on the girder’s size and sheer presence to clear her way through the assembled capes.

Her back was straight, her chin raised, as her subordinates stared.  Her black costume, it was fortunate for her, served to hide the worst smears and stains from Noelle’s vomit.

She swung the girder at Echidna like someone else might swing a baseball bat, and Echidna was knocked off her feet and into a building face.  The girder didn’t bend like the traffic light had.  This was a piece of metal intended to help support buildings.

Echidna opened one mouth, no doubt to vomit, and Alexandria flipped the metal around, driving one end into the open mouth and through Echidna, the other end spearing out of the monster’s stomach.

Before Echidna could react or retaliate, Alexandria flew straight up into the air, joining Legend and Eidolon.

As attacks went, it wasn’t a game changer.  Something else?  A symbol?  A gesture to us?

Echidna roared, lunged, only to hit a forcefield.  The field shattered and she stopped short, the girder rammed further through her.

To say we were at full strength would be a lie.  Too many had been injured.  Still, we’d pinned her down.  I could see Noelle atop Echidna’s back, craning her head to look at me.  Through some signal or some shared knowledge, Echidna was following Noelle’s recommendation, avoiding sudden movements, enduring every attack that came her way rather than risking running headlong into more frozen silk.

In fairness, she still had something of an upper hand.  None of our attacks were slowing her down, not really.  She was healing faster than we hurt her, and our side was getting tired, burning resources.  We weren’t sustaining casualties, but we weren’t winning this fight either.

With our current disorganization, it was only a matter of time before she popped out another clone that was capable of turning the tables.

“We need to finish her,” I said.

“Sundancer could do it, probably, but she would need convincing.  Labyrinth’s going to set up while we wait for Scrub,” Tattletale replied.

“Where is he?”

“Bit dangerous to have him riding along in a car.  We put him in another, and he nuked the engine.  We rigged a sled, and he should arrive in a bit, depending on how many times they need to stop and replace the chain,” she said.

“He’s going to open the door?”

Open is probably the wrong word.”

“What’s the right word?”

“I’d say it’s more like using a battering ram than a doorknob.”

“With dimensions,” I said.

Through dimensions.  Knocking down the door, not knocking down the house.”

“I’m not seeing the difference between the two,” I said.  “What’s to say a given area is one thing over another?”

That,” Tattletale said, “Is Labyrinth’s job.”

I could see Labyrinth.  Faultline was right next to her, apparently talking her through the process.  Arches and high walls rose like cresting waves, locking into place as they met one another.  It amounted to what looked like a church, if only four paces in diameter.

“You think that’ll be easier for Scrub to punch through.”

“Positive,” Tattletale said.

“How do you punch through to the right place?”

That, Tattletale said, “is something we’ll have to trust to luck and an educated guess.”

“Not reassuring,” I said.  “What’s going on?  I’m worried.  Nearly getting yourself shot, twice?  Provoking the Triumvirate?  Spending however much it costs to bring Faultline into the city, after the financial hit you took pulling the soldier gambit on Coil?  Now this?  The dimensional hole?”

“It’s how I operate.”

“Yeah, you’ve been reckless before, got cut by Jack, provoked Glory Girl.  But this is turning the dial to eleven.”

“We came out ahead in the end, both times.”

“It wasn’t necessary.  There were other ways around either of those situations.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Tattletale said.

Echidna roared again, each of her mouths making a slightly different noise, combining into a discordant noise that made almost everyone present wince.  Weld tore his way free of her side, two capes in his grip.

Still five captives inside, I noted.  I saw Weld climb free and drop to the ground.  He wasn’t going back in for more.

Tattletale took me by the arm and led me back and away from the fighting, to where we had more privacy to speak.  I used bugs to guide some capes at the back lines toward some clones who’d flown into an alley.  It was odd, to be playing a part in a high-speed chase while standing still, but the capes were closing the distance on their quarry nonetheless.

“I’m just looking for answers,” I told her.  “This dimensional hole, provoking the heroes, apparently spending a lot of money I’m pretty sure you don’t have.  I… I can kind of get that you’re feeling a bit aimless, a bit unfocused.  Maybe that comes across as recklessness.  I’m feeling like that too.  We beat Coil, and so much of what we’ve done over the past while, it was with the end goal of doing just that.  So I get if you’re not sure of where to go from here.”

“Except you’ve been talking to the heroes, and you’ve had that to help center yourself, figure out where you stand,” Tattletale said.  “I haven’t.”

“That’s it?  You need to talk to someone?”

“No.  That’s not what I’m saying,” she said.  She sighed.  “Yes.  Kind of.  It’s only part of it.  Who the hell am I going to talk to that grasps things on a level I do?  Do you really expect me to find a therapist and sit down and not pick him apart faster than he can decipher me?”

“You could talk to me,” I said.

“Not when you’re part of the problem, part of what I’d need to work past.”

“That’s not fair,” I told her.

“No, it isn’t,” she admitted.

Echidna spat out volumes of clones at the defensive line.  The reaction was only a little slower than it should have been.  Squads still weren’t operating as squads.  Legend and Eidolon were offering support fire from above, but they were standing apart from the rest, in a much different way than Tattletale and I were.

“It’s not you,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more about my relationship with you.”

“This isn’t the point where you confess your undying love for me, is it?”

She snorted.  “No.”

“Then what?  Or is this just going to be another secret you keep?”

“All of the good secrets are getting found out anyways, or so Regent said.  I suspected they would be, for the record.  Part the reason I dished like I did was to put us in a good position in case the juicy stuff did come out.”

“Not sure I buy that,” I said.

“You don’t have to.  It was only a part of it.  And I understand if a more in-depth explanation is overdue, but I need to turn it around in my head some, get it to the point where I can share it without it coming out wrong.”

“Your trigger event?” I asked.

“That’s a part of it.  But can we please put that off until after we’ve torn a hole in reality and stopped the pseudo-Endbringer?”

“Just tell me this isn’t another educated guess.”

“It’s not.  Except for the bit where we might be able to find the right universe.”

“When you’re saying it’s not an educated guess, is that because you’re sure or because it’s an uneducated guess?”

“I’m mostly sure.”

I sighed, loud enough for her to hear.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the van she’d brought.  Labyrinth’s church had expanded considerably, and Scrub was very deliberately keeping his distance, keeping the company of Gregor the Snail, Newter, Shamrock and Spitfire.  They looked a little the worse for wear, with burns, scrapes and bandages.  Had Tattletale pulled them away from a job?

“Hey, F,” Tattletale said, smiling.

Faultline didn’t return the smile.  “You’re aware that I’m going to track you down, beat you to a pulp and leave you tied up for the authorities to collect if we don’t get our payment?”

“You’ll get your payment the minute I have access to a computer Shatterbird hasn’t toasted,” Tattletale said.  “No sweat.”

“I’m harboring serious doubts,” Faultline said.  She glanced at Echidna, “But I can look at this situation, and I understand if there’s a rush here.  How does this work?”

“Really simple,” Tattletale said.  “We should get Labyrinth clear, though.  Then I’ll show you.”

Faultline gave her a look, then hurried to Labyrinth’s side, dodging a wall that was erupting from the ground to fit into the greater structure.  The ground surrounding the temple-like tower had changed, with an ornate inlay of what looked to be artificial flowers.  The petals were gold leaf, the stems the black-gray metal of iron.  The thorns, I couldn’t help but notice, were real, like needles, sticking out of the ground.  Dangerous ground to tread.

As Faultline led Labyrinth to safety, I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to get her attention.  “You sure?”

“I’ve got a theory.  With the clues on the passengers that we got not so long ago, about the powers, the idea of how the things work, I’m getting a sense of the bigger picture.  I think I could spend a decade working it out, but the basics of it?  I think there’s a lot of powers that are a lot more versatile than their owners are aware, because they never get the opportunity to leverage it.”

Above us, Legend followed through on one cape’s attacks, opening a wound in Noelle’s side.  Grace leaped in as the laser stopped, grabbed a cape that had been exposed by Legend’s attack, then kicked herself free, bringing the cape with her.

Another cape exhaled a cloud of what might have been acid vapor in Noelle’s direction, apparently to slow the healing of the wound.  It didn’t make much of a difference.

“Based on what?” I asked Tattletale.

“It’s all part of a whole,” she replied, absently.  Her focus was on the others.  “Scrub!  Get closer to the tower!  Everyone else, get back!  Labyrinth, don’t use your power any more!  Hold off!”

Heads turned.  People had no doubt noticed the tower, but now something was happening.

Scrub stepped closer, and one of his explosions ripped through the air.  Another followed shortly after, intersecting one area of altered road.

Like a gas in the air that had been ignited, the entire thing went up in a heartbeat.  In an instant, it was a white void, as undefinable as Grue’s darkness, perceivable by the edges, but with zero depth or dimension.  He’d shunted out the entire structure, as well as everything that had altered on the ground, but nothing had come back.

The door had been kicked out of the frame.

To look at it, I’d almost expected a rush of wind as the void on the other side sucked everything into it, like the vacuum of space.  There was only the sensation of a breeze as the air flowed into it.

Alexandria landed next to us, with enough force that I nearly lost my footing.  Every set of eyes that wasn’t on Echidna was on us, now.

“What did you do?”

“Made a hole,” Tattletale said.

Apparently.  You didn’t ask?  You didn’t consider the ramifications of this?  Close it now.”

“Who said we could close it?” Tattletale asked.

“You’re a fool,” Alexandria said.  She set one hand around Tattletale’s neck.  She could have killed Tattletale with a squeeze, but she didn’t.  A threat.

“I’d be careful,” a cape growled, from the periphery of the scene.  I didn’t recognize the man.  He wore a costume in orange with red metal claws.  Alexandria turned to look at him, and he added, “Wasn’t so long ago that your partner called us all fools.”

In the background, Echidna screeched.  She fought her way forward through the crowd, but the battle lines were holding, now.  Our side hadn’t been surprised, this time, and the only capes in her reach were capes she couldn’t absorb.  The rest were staying well back.

She wasn’t an Endbringer, in the end.  It would be impossible to trap any of them like this, to get an advantage.  They had other tools, ways to exert pressure that were entirely independent of their own abilities.  Behemoth generated storms and background radiation, Leviathan had the waves, the Simurgh had her scream.

“That wasn’t him,” Alexandria said.  “It wasn’t Eidolon who said that.”

“Close enough,” the cape said.  “Let her go.  You can’t throw around authority you don’t have.”

“As of this moment, I am still Chief Director of the PRT, and I am the leader of the Protectorate team that overlooks the second largest city in the United States.  That hasn’t changed.  At the end of the day, I’ll face any consequences I have to, but for now, I’m still in charge.”

“Your authority doesn’t mean anything if they don’t accept it,” Tattletale said, staring Alexandria in the eyes.  “Put me down.”

“I can’t let this go any further.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Tattletale said, “There’s no further to go.  It’s pretty much gone.  All that’s left is to find out whether this is a useful trick we just pulled or a really useful trick.”

“Useful?”  Alexandria asked.

“Worst case scenario, it’s a place we can dump Echidna.  A place where she won’t be able to hurt anyone.”

“Or?”

“Or Labyrinth figures out that she can work with this.”

The hole blurred, colors consolidating into forms.  I could see Faultline standing by Labyrinth, arms folded.

“Labyrinth… the shaker twelve,” Alexandria said.

“That’s the one,” Tattletale said.  “Mind letting go of my throat?”

Alexandria let go, but settled her hands on Tattletale’s shoulders.  The implied threat was still there, just not so imminent.

“It’s deep,” Labyrinth said.  Her voice was faint, as if from far away.  “There’s so much there.  Worlds that I didn’t make.”

“All parts of a whole,” Tattletale mused.  “Okay, Labyrinth.  The world we’re looking for isn’t very deep at all.  In fact, it’s very, very close to the surface.  When you push into that world, it’ll feel easier.  Like a path that someone’s already walked, more than once.”

“There’s two like that.”

I would have missed it if it weren’t for my bugs.  Alexandria reacted, stiffening, a slight straightening of her back.

Behind us, Echidna roared and threw herself against the barrier of ice and forcefields that surrounded her.

I turned toward Alexandria.  “What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she responded.  Her hands still rested on Tattletale’s shoulders.

You didn’t have to, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure how to use the information, and I didn’t want to distract anyone from the subject at hand.

“Look,” Labyrinth said.  “One’s like this…”

The image shifted.  I wasn’t the only one who walked around to get a better view through the window.  The landscape on the other side the window was different, the grassy hills that had been Brockton Bay before settlement, the distant beaches.  There were houses, but they were squat and blocky, half-overgrown.

Again, the slightest reaction from Alexandria.

“…And here’s the other.”

Another landscape.  A city, like Brockton Bay, with different buildings.  Intact, undamaged.  It looked like a back road, one that didn’t get much in the way of traffic.  Apparently the streets in that Brockton Bay were in different places.

“Earth Aleph,” Tattletale said.

The Travelers’ world?

“Are you insane?” Alexandria asked.  “There’s sanctions, treaties, truces.  If you open this hole to Earth Aleph, it could mean a war between universes.”

“If that war was possible,” Tattletale said, “We’d have had it already.  The possibility of a whole other world of resources is too much to pass up.  Sure, our side has more raw firepower, by a factor of a hundred, but their side has just as many nukes.  It’s a zero sum war.”

“You don’t understand what you’re getting into.”

“What I understand is that accidents happen, and everyone in earshot will call this particular interuniversal portal as an accident, because it keeps things peaceful.  I also understand that this keeps Brockton Bay on the map.  Any other circumstance, people are going to keep trying to scrap this city, to accept that it’s too costly to rebuild, that the criminal element holds too much power.  They’ll throw bill after bill out there until the right combination of people are in power, the right hands can be greased, and Brockton Bay gets bulldozed and paved over.”

“It still could,” a cape said.

“Oh, sure, theoretically,” Tattletale said.  “But there’s really two options here.  Either we spread the word, and a whole sub-industry explodes around this simple little doorway, accessing and trading information between worlds, research, a mess of other stuff, a city full of residents who’ve put up with disaster after disaster get work, get their homes rebuilt, and ultimately get their second chance.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” I finished her thought, “And we get none of that.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” Tattletale agreed, “We do what Alexandria wants, and everything stays hush hush, just the way the big bad secret organization likes it.”

I could see the capes around us paying attention.  Ten, fifteen capes, from cities all across America and Canada.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Alexandria said.

“Fucking you over?”

“You’re putting everything at stake.  All of us, this world.  Even if we ignore the chance of our very first interdimensional war-”

“Traitor!” someone shouted from the sidelines, cutting her off.

Alexandria turned her head to try and identify the culprit.  I got the impression she wasn’t used to people insulting her.  There were more capes nearby.  Miss Militia had backed up, but was keeping her eyes on the spot where Echidna was trapped.  On the far side of the clearing where the gateway stood, Gregor the Snail escorted a bound Sundancer and Ballistic to the periphery of the area.

“I can’t help but agree with Alexandria,” Faultline said.  “This is reckless.”

“More than a little,” Tattletale agreed.  “But I’m not sure you heard the full story.  I only heard it secondhand, and I was with you from the time your helicopter arrived.  When we last ran into Newter, you guys were looking for dirt on Cauldron.  You still looking?”

Faultline’s eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

“No less than ten minutes ago, Eidolon’s evil double admitted full culpability.  The Triumvirate, much of the upper levels of the Protectorate.  Kidnapping people from other universes, experimenting on them to figure out some power-inducing formulas, dropping them here.  Might help you to understand why people are giving Alexandria the evil eye.”

Faultline glanced at Alexandria.  “A little too easy, to find out like this.”

“It’s not the full story,” Tattletale said, “Not by half.  But it should inform your call on whether to side with her or not.”

Faultline frowned.  “That’s not… no.  Maybe she is the person behind the scenes.  Fine.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she might be right.  Better to have Labyrinth find another universe to link to.  Maybe one where a mountain is blocking the other side of this gateway, if we can’t close it.”

“Why do you have to be so reasonable?” Tattletale asked.  “That’s the worst of both worlds.”

“It’s not war,” Faultline retorted.

“Stop,” Chevalier said.  People parted to give him room to enter the clearing.  “There’s other concerns.  The deal that was described to me was that the Travelers would do what they could to eliminate Echidna.  Failing that, we find a way to move her through the gap and deposit her in a place where she can do no harm.  That’s our first priority.”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Want to go home, Sundancer?  B-man?” Tattletale asked.  “Genesis?  Oliver?”

Ballistic, Genesis and Oliver stared at the opening.  Sundancer was shaking her head.

“What?”

Sundancer spoke, “I… it’s not home anymore, is it?  I’m not me.  Can’t go back to the way things were.  I’ve killed people.  Accidentally, but I’ve killed.  I have powers.  If I went there, I wouldn’t be Marissa.  I’d be… Sundancer.  I’d be famous.  If anyone found out about me, or if there was something in the media that goes between worlds, that clued them in…”

“They don’t have to know,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t… I don’t know if I can.”

I spoke up, “Are you talking about going home, or killing Noelle?”

“She’s… she was my best friend.”

“She’s not Noelle anymore,” I said.

Sundancer shook her head.

“Go,” Tattletale said.  “She’s not happy like this.  You do this, then you go home.  You give your mom a hug, fabricate an excuse to explain why you disappeared, and then go back to life as normal.  Never use your powers again, if you don’t want to.  See if you can eventually convince yourself that none of this ever happened.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“No.  But it’s a hell of a lot better than staying here, isn’t it?”  Tattletale asked.

“She’s my friend.”

“Was,” I said.  “It’s a big difference.”

Sundancer looked at the mound of ice, rock and forcefields.  Echidna was thrusting her clawed hands through the barriers, only for them to be reinforced.

“Are there… does she have anyone inside her?”

“There’s-” Tattletale started.  I flew a bug into her mouth and down her throat, and she choked.

“No,” I lied.  “I’ve been keeping track with my bugs.  Weld and the others got everyone out.”

Saved everyone they could.  If Weld had backed out and nobody else was able to free the small handful that were still trapped, that was it.

Nobody was correcting me.  They knew, but they weren’t correcting me.

Sundancer hung her head.  She started approaching Echidna, her hands cupped in front of her.

“Move!”  Chevalier shouted.  “Clear out of the way!”

Capes began to retreat.  Final patch-up jobs were thrown onto the mound of rock, forcefields and ice before the respective capes turned and ran.

It took Sundancer a long few seconds to form the miniature sun.  When it was formed, she held it over her head, letting it grow with every passing second.

I had to back away as the heat reached me.  I could note how the ice was melting, even though it was a hundred feet away.

Echidna roared and threw herself against her temporary prison.  Rock and melting ice tumbled away.  She began to claw free, until her upper body was exposed.  Capes opened with ranged fire, tearing into her forelimbs and limiting her mobility.  Alexandria dropped Tattletale and cast off her cape, before flying in and helping to hold Echidna in place.

“Marissa!”  Echidna screamed, her voice guttural, voiced from five different mouths.  “Mars!  It’s too soon!  I want to kill them!  I want to kill them all!  Kill this world!  Destroy this universe that did this to me!  Not yet, Mars!”

The sun flew forward, melting pavement as it traveled, before it enveloped Echidna, Alexandria and the prison of ice and stone.

It hung there for nearly a minute, deafening with its sizzling and crackling.

The sun flickered and went out. Echidna wasn’t there any more.  Only sections of her feet were still in contact with the ground, bones and claws scorched black, crumbling and decaying like any part of her did when disconnected from the core that supplied her with power.

Alexandria was there in the midst of it, panting for breath.  Her costume had burned away, and only the metal pieces remained, including helmet, belt and metal underwear, each so hot they were melting and running over her skin.

But Sundancer was already turning away, not wanting to see it for herself.  She pulled off her mask and threw it aside.  Blond hair tumbled down around her shoulders, half-covering her downcast face.

Piece by piece, she removed her costume, not caring in the slightest about the watching crowd.  Each discarded piece sank into the melted ground around her or smoked on contact with it.  When she’d finished, she wore only her camisole and terry shorts.  The ground was still shiny and smoking from the sheer heat as she approached, left cool and solid in her wake.

She stepped into the portal, without a word, and then looked around, confused.  She took another few steps, and passed around the side of the portal as though it were merely a corner, out of sight.

The other Travelers went through next.  Oliver and Genesis didn’t look like anything but ordinary people, with no costume or monstrous form, respectively.  They merely passed through.

Ballistic hesitated for long seconds.  “Trickster?”

“We have him in custody.  He’ll go to the Birdcage,” Chevalier said.

“Good.  Because we don’t want him,” Ballistic said.

He walked through the portal, still wearing his costume.

“Can you close it?” Faultline asked, when Ballistic had disappeared from sight.

“No.  Not really,” Labyrinth said.  “I can pick a different world.  So there’s no war.  Or do like you said, find a place where a mountain covers the hole.”

“Feel free,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “In fact, that might even be more useful.  Can you imagine how significant Brockton Bay might become, if we had a whole unpopulated world to get to, harvest for resources, and Brockton Bay was the terminal you had to pass through?”

Faultline frowned.  “You used us.”

“I hired you.  Not my fault if you didn’t ask for enough money.

Faultline put her arm around Labyrinth’s shoulders.  “Can you find a world without people?”

“I… yes.  There’s one with lots of trees.  I’m looking all over, and I can’t find anyone at all.  Not even on the other side of the oceans.  Only animals.”

“That’ll do,” Faultline said.  She looked at Tattletale, “Not for you.  Only because I couldn’t stand to let her be responsible for an Endbringer finding a defenseless world.”

“Much obliged, whatever the reasoning,” Tattletale replied.  She flashed a smile.

Faultline only frowned and turned to usher Labyrinth away.

“Wait,” someone called out.

Weld, with the red skinned boy and Gully beside him.  They caught up with Faultline’s crew.

Whatever words they exchanged, I didn’t get a chance to hear.  There was no way that the ‘monsters’ could serve the Protectorate.  Faultline was a known element, someone who had, as far as everyone was aware, always been good to the people I was now thinking of as the Cauldron-made.

I couldn’t even begin to guess where they’d go from there, but they’d have stuff to talk about, no doubt.

I’d mentioned to Tattletale that I’d felt adrift, after letting Dinah go.  Untethered, I think, was the word I’d used.  Everyone here now felt like that, to some degree.  The future had never been quite this uncertain.

I saw Alexandria standing by the sideline.  Eidolon had gathered her heavy cape where she’d tossed it aside and was helping to drape it around her shoulders.  I wasn’t the only one looking, but she was oblivious, uncaring.  She still stood with all the confidence in the world.

She was barely covered, with one hand pinching the cape shut in front of her, traces of now-cooled metal lacing through her hair, the eyebrow and eyelashes of her one good eye.  It highlighted the lines at the corner of her eye, a finer metal finding its way into the crevices.  Her other eye held only a scarred over ruin with cooled metal pooled in the deeper recesses.  There were nubs of melted metal rods, no doubt there to help hold a high-end prosthetic in place.  Tinker-made, if she’d been hiding her injury to play the role of the PRT’s Chief Director.

Without Echidna to divide our number, our ranks were free to line up in a rough semicircle around Alexandria and Eidolon.

“Nobody can know what happened today,” Alexandria said, utterly calm.

Someone scoffed.  “You want us to keep your secret?

“Not the secret,” she said, unfazed by the scoff.  “Echidna.  Four capes were inside her when she was scoured away.  More were injured or killed in the course of the fight, or in Shatterbird’s attack.  We can’t cover that up.  We shouldn’t.  They were good capes.  But we can’t tell the whole story.”

“You don’t get to say that,” the ice-generating cape said.  “You have no place, saying that.”

“I won’t argue,” Alexandria said.  “Everything we did, we did for the right reasons.  I understand it’s ugly, without the context.”

Someone at the front spat in her face.  Alexandria didn’t even blink.  She let the spit run down around the ruined pit where her eye had been, much like she had with the molten metal.

“If word were to get out about the clones, the ramifications would be too damaging.  We’ve spent decades cultivating an illusion, that we’re heroes.  Decades shaking the idea that we’re killing machines.  The nature of this fight threatens to reveal just how much damage even the more mundane of us parahumans could do to the common people.  That’s not only the clones and what they did, but how we dealt with the clones, in turn.  We can’t shatter the image that the Protectorate has so painstakingly built, or the entire world will turn on us.”

“And the Protectorate?” Miss Militia asked, her voice hard.

“What of it?”

“The involvement with Cauldron.  It won’t stand, not like this.”

“It has to,” Alexandria replied.  “Too much depends on the Protectorate, even internationally.  If it crumbles, then the whole world suffers for it.  Other teams around the world would go without the resources we provide.  If it means keeping the Protectorate intact, I will step down.  I’ll tender my resignation as Chief Director of the PRT, effective the moment I can reach my desk.  I’ll consent to being watched until the moment I can step down as Alexandria, if you are uncomfortable with me continuing to serve the Protectorate in costume.  Eidolon, I’m sure, will do the same.  Myrddin’s death will be excuse enough for our retirements.”

“What about Legend?” Miss Militia asked.

Alexandria raised her head, staring up at where Legend hung in the air, unmoving.

“He was only aware of the most basic elements.  That Cauldron sold powers, but not how we tested them.  He did not know of our relation to the Nine.”

“He made excuses for you,” Miss Militia said.  “Lied.  We can’t trust him any more than we can trust you.”

“I’m aware.  But what he does next is ultimately up to him.  I am only telling you what I know, and I know he did not know as much as Eidolon and I did.”

“That’s not good enough,” a cape said.  “You’ve committed crimes against humanity.  You bastards should be tried.”

“Do that, and the whole world pays.  Every cape would come under scrutiny, both from other parahumans and from the public.  Teams would dissolve, faith would falter, and I sincerely doubt we’d last through the next two Endbringer attacks in that kind of a state.”

All around me, capes exchanged glances.  I could hear angry murmurs, my swarm could sense fists clenching in anger.

“And the captives?  The people from other worlds Cauldron kidnapped?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Anyone with clearance should know that the number of people with physical mutations has declined steeply.  We’ve stopped experimenting.”

“Or so you say,” Tattletale cut in.

“I do.  Tell me I’m lying, Tattletale,” Alexandria said.

Tattletale shook her head.

“You need us,” Alexandria said.  “If not for the assistance we can provide in the face of class-S threats, then for the image, for the idea.  I’m trusting that each of you are sane enough, reasonable enough, to understand that.  You could come after us, but I assure you it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“And Cauldron?” someone asked.

“As I said, we’re only barely involved.  If you want to try going after them and get justice for what happened to the captives, feel free.  Just know that we can’t help you there.  We can’t give you access or information, because they’re out of your reach, and in the wake of all this, they’ll be out of our reach too.”

I felt numb.  She was everything I despised.  Authority, the institution, the self-serving people in power, the untouchable.  All around me, I could hear angry voices, each trying to drown the others out.  Chevalier was among them, Miss Militia was quiet.

Tattletale was quiet, oddly enough.

“I-” I started, but the voices drowned me out.

My swarm buzzed with noise.  People startled and jumped as the bugs moved, shifting from the various positions where I’d more or less hidden them at elbows and in armor plates.

I stepped out of the crowd, toward Alexandria, and then turned my back to her, facing the capes.  So many eyes on me.

“She’s right,” I said, my swarm carrying my voice for effect.

Voices rose in anger, and again, I had my swarm move, buzzing violently, until they stopped.

“I’m not a public speaker, so I’ll make it short.  I’ve got a long history with the Protectorate, a hell of a lot more experience being angry with them.  I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them, and that’s not a good thing, not entirely.  But Alexandria’s right.  Not about Cauldron, or the human experimentation.  I don’t know anything about that.  But she’s right that we shouldn’t make any rash descisions.  Talk it out with your teammates before you make a call.  Maybe the various team and squad leaders should convene, form a unanimous decision.  I don’t know.  But… don’t let your anger push you to do something that affects everyone.  Please.”

A second passed.

“You’re not with the PRT, are you?” a cape asked.

“No,” I said.

“So you don’t have to wake up tomorrow and go to work, pretend like everything’s normal?”

“No.”

“Work beside someone, wondering if they lied about their trigger event?  If they maybe got their powers from a bottle, something made only because some psychopaths,” he spat the word out at Alexandria, “Decided to experiment on innocent people and sell the results at a profit?”

“No.  I don’t really have to wonder about that.”

“Then where the fuck do you get off, telling us what to do, then?”

“Calm down, Jouster,” Miss Militia said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’re right.  It’s not my place,” I said.  I looked at Miss Militia and Chevalier.  Clockblocker was just a little ways behind them.  “Thanks for hearing me out.  Good luck.”

Atlas flew to my position.  I drew my bugs around me and took flight, rising well into the air and hiding myself in the mass of bugs before pausing to adjust to a sitting position.

I saw Legend hovering in the air.  His fists were clenched, and he was looking down.  He looked agonized.

If I’d had any idea what to say, I might have approached him.  I didn’t.

With a command, I directed Atlas away from the discussion that could decide history, maybe even the fate of the world.

I sat on the railing of my balcony, Atlas’ body hidden behind the towel-covered railing, serving as a footrest while I fed him a much-needed meal.  Unfolded pieces of paper sat in each of my hands.

I couldn’t stand to be there any longer.  I’d said what I could, for what little it was worth, but I was too tired, the stakes were too high, and Jouster had been right.  The consequences might have been world-spanning, but it was ultimately up to the Protectorate to decide what happened next.  I didn’t like feeling that helpless.

Beneath me, some kids from my territory were carrying boxes of treats I’d ordered two days ago.  They’d take more than their fair share, but they’d distribute the treats to the other people in my territory, people who had likely gone a good little while without a chocolate bar or bag of chewy candy.

There hadn’t been any clones in my range as I zig-zagged my way to the North end, no signs of swarm activity.  I’d stopped by home, checked things over with my bugs, and my dad was there, more or less fine.

I’d go home in just a little while.  It wasn’t a peaceful place, though.  This was.  My territory, being with people I’d taken care of, people I’d protected and fought for.  My heart was easier here than it was around my dad.

I was aware of the approaching figure, twisted around to get a look at Lisa.

“Can I come up?”

I pointed at the door, followed her movements as she navigated her way past Charlotte and up the stairs.  She reached the balcony and stepped out to hop onto the end of the railing opposite me.

“I own the land the hole to the other universe is on,” Tattletale said.  “Or Coil’s fake name does, and I can finagle that so I have control over it.”

I nodded.  “The meeting?  Did they decide?”

“Legend left first.  Then Alexandria and Eidolon.  The heroes were still talking when I left.”

“Okay,” I said.  That didn’t mean anything, not exactly, but it was better than the alternative.  The longer they talked, the more tempers would cool.

Perversely, I almost hoped that Cauldron had the clout to silence a few angry voices.  I could only hope that they were few and far enough between that the story wouldn’t reach the public.

“Rex,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?”

“His name was Reggie, but he got into sports in high school.  They started calling him Rex, until everyone used the name.  I don’t mean this to be insulting, but you were kind of opposites in a lot of ways.  He was this popular guy, charming.”

“Your boyfriend?”

She laughed, a short sound.  “My brother.”

“Oh.”

“My family was well-to-do, I think that’s come up.”

“Yeah.”

“When you’re that rich, when you have people working under you who do the chores and handle the stuff that you’d normally do with your family, sometimes it’s hard to stay a family, you know?”

Not really, I thought, but I nodded.

She gave me a funny look, but she didn’t call me on it.  “It gets to this point where, you know, your cool older brother only spends time with you because it’s his duty as a sibling.  And when you realize that, it sort of hurts.  Makes it insulting.  I think I caught on to that around the time I started high school.  I stopped accepting those token offers of siblinghood.  We were brother and sister, we lived in the same house, went to the same school.  Our paths crossed, but we didn’t interact.  We were strangers.  He was caught up being the popular senior, and I kind of resented him for it.”

“For not being a brother?”

Lisa shrugged.  “Don’t know.  More for acting like a brother than not being a real brother.  For being the popular kid, being the favorite child, heir to the family businesses.”

“What happened?”

“I started noticing, he was in rough shape.  The smiles seemed fake, he’d get angry easier.  Was bottling something up inside.”

“What was it?”

Lisa shrugged.  “I’ve dwelled on it so long I’ve imagined possibilities and derailed my train of thought.  Even with my power, I can’t guess.”

“And something happened?”

“He slowly got more and more distant.  He’d fake more smiles, get a little more angry, a little more reckless.  And then one day he offed himself.”

Just around the corner, some kids were screaming and shouting as they played.  One boy was pelting another with chocolate pellets.  The victim shrieked in pain.

My bugs swept over the boy with the chocolates, and the pair froze.  They looked around, trying and failing to see me, then ran for the nearest alleyway, fight forgotten.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I,” Lisa sighed.  “I’ve spent so long trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t.  You’d think the star athlete might be gay, but it wasn’t that.  Something else.  I let on to my family that I’d noticed something, after, and they started blaming me.  They were grieving, but that doesn’t excuse it, does it?”

I shook my head.

“Calling me stupid, an idiot,” Lisa looked away.  “It got to be too much, like I was in a pressure cooker, everywhere I went, it was about him, and there was always this feeling, like everyone was aware that I’d known something and hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t done something to help.  I think I had my trigger event while I was asleep, tossing and turning and dreaming about it all.  And then, boom, I wake up and I start figuring stuff out, with killer migraines on the side.  Maybe if I’d caught on that it was powers sooner, I might have been more secretive, but my dad caught on.  Did a complete turnaround.  Faked affection, hid the real feelings, all to get me to use my power for the family’s benefit.”

Lisa shrugged.  “I was already seeing too much ugly, even before the powers.  Seeing more of it?  Seeing when people were being fake, when everything else was still screwy because of Rex’s suicide?  It was too much.  I took more money than I should have from my parents and I ran.”

“And Coil eventually found you.”

She nodded.  “And I eventually found you.  I took one look at you, and I had a grasp of what was going on.  Didn’t take too long for me to notice that you had that same air around you that Rex did.  Maybe I did what I could to save you because I couldn’t save him.”

“Earlier, you said that you couldn’t talk to me about the problem because I was the problem.”

“I saw it when you pulled the trigger, offed Coil.  You saved Dinah, and you described how you felt adrift in the aftermath of it.  But you found a new focus.  You could fight Echidna.  Save the city.  Me?  When you shot Coil, I realized I was done.  I’d helped you out of the same trap of despair Rex had been in.  Don’t know if the road I helped you down was a good one or a bad, but I’d finished.”

“But why be reckless?  Why take the risks?”

“Because I did what I had to do, I helped you, and I still feel like the stupid, self-obsessed little child that let her big brother die.  It wasn’t conscious, but maybe I felt like I needed to up the stakes.  Pull something dramatic.  Show that, with these crazy smart capes like Alexandria and Faultline around, I could still be the smartest person in the room.”

“And do you feel like the smartest person in the room?”  I asked.

She stared out over the cityscape.  “Maybe- maybe when the interuniversal trade takes off.  Can you imagine?  With me and you as the top dogs?  The whole world will pay attention to us.”

I hopped down from the railing, walking around Atlas as I made my way to Lisa.  I wrapped my arms around her, and she returned the hug.

I crumpled the papers in my fists.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #4)

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Dr. Jeremy Foster was woken by the sound of a distant gunshot.  He sat straight up in bed.

Another gunshot.

He reached over to his bedside table and found the remote.  A press of a button illuminated his bedroom.  He opened the drawer to grab the handheld radio and pressed the button.  “Report.”

Silence.

“Captain Adams, report.”

It wasn’t Captain Adams who responded.  It was a woman.  “Stay put, doctor.  We’ll be with you in a moment.

He was out of bed in a flash.  Remote in hand, he turned off the light and opened his bedroom door.

There were two figures in the hallway, cloaked in shadow, one large and broad, the other narrow.  The smaller one saw him and broke into a run.

He slammed the bedroom door and locked it in the same motion.  There was a crash as the figure threw himself against the door.  If the door were the usual wood chip and cheap cardboard, it might have broken, but Jeremy valued quality, even with the things one normally didn’t see.  His doors were solid wood.

The doorknob rattled as the doctor crossed his bedroom.  He reached for the underside of one shelf on his bookcase, pulled a pin, and then pulled the bookcase away from the wall.

The remote fit into a depression on the stainless steel door that sat behind the bookcase.  He made sure it was positioned correctly, then hit a button.  There was a click, and the door popped open a crack.  He had to use both hands to slide the door open.

The doorknob rattled again, then there was a heavier collision.  The bigger man had gotten close.

Safely inside, Jeremy pulled the bookcase tight against the wall, felt it click into place, and then shut the metal door of his panic room.

Monitors flickered on, showing his estate in shades of black and green.  At any given time, he had seven armed men patrolling the grounds and an eighth keeping an eye on the security cameras.  He could count seven fallen, including the man in the security office.   They lay prone on the ground, or slumped over the nearest surface.  One struggled weakly.

He picked up the phone.  There wasn’t a dial tone.

The cell phone, then.  He opened a drawer and picked up the cell.  No service.  There was only static.  They had something to block it.

There was no such thing as ‘security’.  However much one invested in safes, in armed guards, in panic rooms and high stone walls, it only served to escalate a perpetual contest with the people who would try to circumvent those measures.  Raising the stakes.

Helpless, Jeremy watched the invaders making their way through his house.  He was already mentally calculating the potential losses.  Pieces of artwork worth tens of thousands, valuables not secured in the safes…

The Magnes painting at the landing between the second and third floor, overlooking the ground floor foyer.  Jeremy winced at the realization.  He’d only picked it up two months ago.  The two million dollar price tag might have given him pause, but it was insured.  He’d bought all the furniture for foyer to complement the work, and now he’d have to find another painting to take its place and buy new furniture to match.

Except they were walking by the painting as though it weren’t even there.

A part of him felt offended that they hadn’t even stopped to admire it.  Philistines.

No.  There was a very good chance they were coming for him.

One by one, they entered his bedroom.  It was a blind spot of sorts.  He’d wanted his privacy, so the only ways to turn on the security camera in the corner of the room would be to unlock or open the balcony doors, break the glass or input a particular code.

He stepped over to the computer, typed in the code.  Simonfoster19931996.

The screen flickered to life, but it wasn’t his bedroom in the picture.  A field with four walls approximately where his bedroom walls had been, the six invaders waiting very patiently in the middle as walls stripped away to become tendrils, tendrils became vines and vines twisted together into treelike forms.

The window went quickly.  The ‘field’ of knee-length grass rippled as the wind caught it.

The bookcase was slower to degrade.  Books were rendered into leaves, shelves into vines.  He watched the image on the camera with an increasing sense of dread, glanced at the door.

The screen went black.

“No, no, no, no,” he said.

A crack appeared in the door.  Floor to ceiling.

He grabbed the handgun from the counter, double checked it was loaded.

Another crack crossed the door, horizontal, nearly six feet above the ground.

He disabled the safety.

With the third crack, the door fell into the panic room, slamming against the ground.  He fired into the opening of the doorway, and the acoustics of the metal-walled room made the shot far, far louder than it had any right to be.

There was nobody standing in the doorway.

He looked around.  The layout of the room wasn’t set up for a firefight.  Especially not a firefight that involved parahumans.  He crouched, kept the gun pointed toward the door.

They didn’t make a move. The floor of the panic room was being finely etched with markings that overlapped and wove into one another.  Where lines drew to a taper, points were curling up, strands slowly rising, dividing into finer growths and flaring at the top with the vague cat-tail like ends of wild grass.  He could see the clean-cut edges of the door curling, twisting into tendrils.  Some had teardrop shaped bulges on the end.

“Elle,” he called out.  “Labyrinth?”

All together, the bulges on the tendrils unfurled into tiny, metallic flowers, framing the doorway.

“She’s having one of her bad days, doctor,” the woman who had been on the other side of the radio called back.  “She’s not feeling very talkative as a result.  If you have something to say, say it to me.  I go by Faultline.”

Faultline pressed her back to the ‘wall’.  Not that it was really a ‘wall’.  Labyrinth’s power was slowly working on the metal, gradually twisting it into gnarled textures and branches. Shamrock was beside her, clad in a costume of skintight black leather with a green clover on the chest, her red hair spilling over her shoulders, a combat shotgun directed at the ground.  Gregor and Spitfire were on the other side of the door, holding similar positions.

Newter sat with Labyrinth on the bed, his tail circled around the girl’s waist, keeping her from wandering.  The bed was barely recognizable, nearly consumed by waist-high strands of hardwood-textured grass.

A cool summer breeze blew in through the opening that had once been the window, scattering dandelion seeds and leaves throughout the room’s interior.

“I don’t know what she told you,” the Doctor called out.  “I always treated her professionally, to the best of my ability.”

“We’re not here for revenge on her behalf, Doctor,” Faultline responded.  “We’re looking for information.”

“I’m not working with the Asylum anymore.  It’s been over a year.”

“I know,” she replied.

“Protocols have changed.  I can’t get you past security or anything like that.”

“The Asylum doesn’t really interest me,” Faultline said.  “Not why we’re here.”

“Then why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to track down people who can give us answers, and you stood out.  Spending a little too much money.”

“I’m a good doctor, that’s all!”

“Doesn’t account for it.  Comparing you to your coworkers at the asylum back then, you were spending too much money.  Just enough that I think someone was bankrolling you.”

“Your sources are wrong!”

“Don’t think so.  I think someone was paying you to keep tabs on certain individuals within the asylum.  Was it Cauldron?”

She shut her eyes, listened.  She couldn’t make out any telltale gasps or movement.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The other possibility is that you were working for a foreign government.  A spy.  Or, to be more specific, you were working as a spy for several foreign agencies.”

“Look at my neighbors!  We do the same kind of work, we live at the same level!”

“Your neighbors are in debt, or they’re riding on the capital from smart investments.  You aren’t.  Just the opposite.  Your investments are nil, yet you somehow have enough money sitting in the bank that you can coast into retirement.”

“No,” the Doctor said.

“The difference between you and the other people on my list is that you were stupid about it.  Showing too much of the money.  If it wasn’t me who noticed, it’d be one of the people paying you.”

“Nobody paid me!  Your sources are wrong!  I am in debt!  Hundreds of thousands!”

“Let’s cut past the lies and bullshit, Doctor Foster.  I’m offering you a deal.  You and I both know that you won’t be able to maintain this lifestyle if your employers realize you were discovered.  Depending on who they are, they might even take offense.  Either they terminate their relationship with you or they terminate you.”

More of the house around them was blowing away, dandelion seeds in the wind.  The wall surrounding the window was gone, and the roof was well on its way to the same state.

“I don’t- you’re wrong.  These people you’re talking about, they don’t exist.  I don’t know them.”

“Okay,” Faultline said.  “Now, I’d have to double-check whether the person paying for the mission is willing to torture or kill you for the information we want…”

She hesitated, glanced at Gregor.  He shook his head.

“…And he isn’t.  Isn’t that good news?”

“God.  I’m just- I’m a doctor!  I work with politicians, sometimes with big name parahumans.  The- the president’s friends come to me!  But I’m only a doctor!  I’m not a spy!”

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Faultline said, “if we leave and we spread the word that we thought you were involved.  If it’s an unfounded rumor, then nothing happens.  Maybe your reputation takes a little hit, but a powerful man like you will bounce back, won’t he?”

“Please-”

“But if you’re lying, if you are involved, the people who paid you to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut will be upset.  I don’t think you’ll be able to escape them by hopping on a plane to some remote country.”

She let the words hang in the air.

“I… if I told you, I would be in just as bad a situation.  Hypothetically.”

“Hypothetically,” she said, “I suppose you’d have to decide whether it was better to trust us and our professional, circumspect demeanor and the possibility that we’d let the details slip or whether you wanted to suffer the inevitable consequences if we started talking.”

There was another pause.  She waited patiently.

“I was supposed to find out just how much the United States knew about what was going on.  Like you said, keeping my eyes open.  Twice, putting a special thumbdrive into one of the main computers.  That was for the United Kingdom.  I sent regular reports to another group.  I think they were the C.U.  I didn’t do anything specific for them.  Just describing new inmates, recent hirings and firings, changes in policy.”

The C.U.l  China.  It was good to be right.  “Did you download anything onto the drives, or-”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I was supposed to plug them in, then wait.  After, I took them out and destroyed them.”

“Very possible it was putting a backdoor into place, giving your employer remote access,” Faultline said.

“Why does this matter?”

“That’s our business, not yours.  Did they ever show particular attention to an individual?”

“Some attention for the more powerful ones.  Nothing ever came of it.  I gave them more details, they paid me, that was it.  The patients stayed in the asylum’s custody.”

“If you had to, how would you get in touch with them?”

“Email.  Sometimes phone.  They changed handlers.  Been a while.”

“When did they last contact you?”

“Two years ago?  About?”

“Why?”

“Wisconsin.  The Simurgh attack.  There was an open call for civilian volunteers.  My contact from the U.K. left me a message.  Asked me to volunteer my medical expertise, see who was filtering out.”

“Did he have a handle?”

“Christof.”

Her heart leaped.  “Spell it.”

“C-H-R-I-S-T-O-F.”

A rare smile spread across Faultline’s face.  Finally, after weeks of looking, they’d found a connection between two clues.  Christof was a familiar name.  She glanced at the others, and Newter gave her a little ‘fist pump’ gesture, smiling.

“How much did he pay you?”

“He didn’t.  I refused the deal.”

Every clue points to a greater picture, how they operate and where the priorities are.  In a situation where every piece of information was valuable and every avenue of collecting that information crucial, there was a lot to be said for identifying where the major players weren’t looking for clues.  It suggested they already knew, they already had agents in play.

If they’d let him go so easily, there might have been others.  But it suggested they were interested in what had happened in Madison.

Which meant her crew had reason to be interested.

“Keep talking,” she said.  “Let’s talk about some of the other jobs.”

“Hate the heat,” Faultline said.  “I never thought I’d miss Brockton Bay, but the weather was usually nice.  Damn sun’s not even up and I’m sweltering.”

“It might be easier to bear if you wore something more… summery,” Newter commented, eyeing her short-sleeved dress shirt and the black slacks that were tucked into cowboy boots.  She glared at him, and he smirked in response.

She’d have to put him in check or he’d be intolerable for the rest of the day.  “Maybe I need to get the bullwhip?  Or did you forget the drills?”

Newter groaned aloud.  “You’re on that again.”

“On the wall.  Go.”

Newter leaped across the hotel room and stuck to the wall, one hand planted above his head so he could stay more or less upright, his tail curling around his lower foot.  “Pain in the ass.  You know I’ll have to scrub the hotel walls after to get rid of the footprints before we go.”

“Deal,” Faultline said.  “The practice could make the difference between you dodging a bullet and you moving too slow to avoid it.”

Spitfire and Elle stepped out of the bathroom, Spitfire with a towel in hands, drying Elle’s hair.

“How are we doing?” Faulltine asked.

Elle didn’t respond.  She chewed slightly on her lip, and her eyes looked right through Faulltine as she glanced around the room.

“I think we’re about a three,” Spitfire said.  “She brushed her teeth after I put the brush in her hands.  Why don’t you sit down on the couch, Elle, and I’ll brush your hair?”

“I’ll do that,” Faultline said.  “Get me a brush and then go finish getting ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Spitfire said.  She glanced at Newter, and Faultline suspected she saw an eye roll there.  Spitfire led Elle by hand in the direction of the couch, let go as Elle got close enough to Faultline.  Faultline led the girl to the couch, then sat on the back of the couch with her feet planted to either side of the girl.

She caught the brush that Spitfire threw across the room and set to brushing Elle’s white-blond hair.  “This is badly tangled.  Were you sleeping in a tree again?”

Elle nodded slightly.

“I’ll try to be gentle.  Let me know if I’m tugging too hard.”

Elle nodded again.

Faultline caught a whiff of hot sand, salt, and humid air.

“Don’t make water, okay, Elle?”  Faultline said.  “It’s not that we’re paying the deposit for the room, but it’s a matter of principle.  We’re professionals.  We don’t leave messes.”

The ocean smell faded away by the time Faultline had stroked the brush five more times.

“Thank you,” Faultline said.

The ‘Labyrinth’ power would typically clean itself up.  When they’d left Dr. Foster’s estate, much of it had been turned to leaves, grass and flowers with electric blue petals.  As the effect faded, the building would be restored.

What Elle’s power didn’t clean up was the aftermath the changes themselves wrought.  If a stone pillar toppled onto a car, the pillar might disappear, but the car would remain crushed.  A fire quenched by water would remain out, even as the moisture faded.

Gregor and Shamrock entered from the hotel room’s front door, holding hands.  Both were in their combat gear, with some adjustments made to adjust for the heat.  Shamrock wore black yoga pants and a green sleeveless t-shirt with her clover-leaf symbol on the front in black, her mask dangling from her right front pocket, her shotgun dangling from her free hand.

Gregor wore a fishnet shirt over bare skin, thick canvas pants and a snailshell-spiral mask strapped to his face, with holes worked into the gaps for his eyes.  The dark vague shadows of his organs were visible through the flesh of his broad stomach.

“I’m sorry the rest of us aren’t ready to go.  Slow start,” Faultline confessed.

“It happens,” Gregor said, in his accented voice.  “And I know it is almost always Spitfire, Newter or Elle at fault.  Not to say I would fault Elle.  But you should not apologize for any of them.  Only yourself.”

“Frankly, bro,” Newter said, “I’m surprised you’re even capable of moving.  It’s not like you slept a wink, know what I mean?”

Gregor lobbed a glob of goo at Newter, who leaped to the ceiling, cackling.  The slime bubbled away to nothingness.

“I took the role of leader,” Faultline said. “It’s my job to kick people’s asses and get them moving when we have a job coming up.”

“And I’m the client,” Gregor said.  He’d taken a seat in an armchair, and Shamrock sat in his lap.  Almost as an afterthought, he folded his arms around the young woman.  “I could ask that you and the team are more casual with this job.  Our destination is going to be there whether we leave before dawn or at sunset.”

Faultline shook her head.  “I’d rather treat this as I would any job.  If nothing else, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow means they won’t get sloppy on our next serious job.”

“Very well,” Gregor said.  “Then I’d like to leave within thirty minutes.”

“We’ll make it ten,” Faultline said.  “Pack everything up.  Spitfire can help Elle get her stuff on.  Elle makes us an exit from the balcony so we aren’t walking through the hotel in costume.”

She stood from the back of the couch, and nearly collided with a statue that had emerged from the wall above and around her.  A woman, back arched, hands outstretched to either side of Faultline.

She led Elle to the bedroom, where Spitfire was pulling the last of her fire-retardant gear on.  Her own gear was in a separate suitcase.

Faultline was a believer in doing things right.  Image came secondary to effect, and doing the job right was better for image than having the best costume.  Her own costume blended several functions.  A bulletproof vest, lightweight, with a stylized exterior, formed the most expensive single component of the outfit.  She tied her hair back into a crude bun, then gingerly drew the ‘ponytail’ from the side of the suitcase.  Unfolding the surrounding cover, Faultline slowly and carefully used her fingers to comb the fake hair onto a semblance of order.  The bristly hair extension masked a thin, flexible rod in the core, with painted spikes protruding at various angles.  It was all too common for an enemy to reach for the ponytail in an attempt to get her.  Their hands would be impaled on the waiting spikes, if they weren’t invulnerable, and the hair extension would come free, giving her a chance to escape.

Belts with various tools and weapons were strapped to her upper arms, forearms and thighs, held in place with suspenders.  Knives, lockpicks, various pre-prepared hypodermic needles, climbing tools, sticks of chalk, a mirror, a magnifying glass, iron wire and more were on hand if she needed them.  She ran her finger over the belts to ensure that each pocket was full.

She checked her semiautomatic, then slid it into the holster at her left hip.  A flare gun went into the holster at the right.  Flowing sleeves that would mask the belts and their contents were buckled on next, followed by a dress with a side pocket that would let her access the gun in a pinch.  The buckles meant that anyone pulling on the fabric would pull it free rather than get hold of her.

It was amusing, just how much of a contrast Labyrinth’s costume was.   The robe was easy enough to wear that she could put it on over her clothes.  It was green with a ‘maze’ drawn on the fabric.  There were no safety measures, only minimal supplies and gear.

Faultline donned her mask, more a welder’s mask with a stylized crack to see through than anything else, then led the other two girls back into the main area of their hotel room.

Newter had changed, but he didn’t need much.  He had handwraps and footwraps that left his fingers and toes free, basketball shorts and a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.  He was the first one to exit the apartment, disappearing out the window, then poked his head back in long enough to give a thumbs up.

Elle opened the window into a proper exit, complete with a staircase leading to the road behind the hotel.  Faultline paused to look at the looming stone wall, only a few blocks away.  Three hundred feet tall, it was all smooth stone.  Parahuman made, no doubt.  The barrier encircled the area the Simurgh had attacked, containing everything within.

Every house and building within three hundred feet of the wall itself had been bulldozed.  She couldn’t help but feel conspicuous as they crossed the open area.  It was dark, there weren’t any spotlights, but she couldn’t help but be paranoid.

“Cell phones are dead,” Shamrock commented.

Faultline nodded grimly.  Of course there wouldn’t be any transmissions into or out of this area.  No messages of any sort would be permitted.  Not even water entered or left the quarantine area, let alone communications or goods.  Anyone still inside was left to fend for themselves with whatever resources they could gather.

She’d checked and double checked the measures authorities were taking, ensuring that the area wasn’t being watched for intruders.  There weren’t any people on the wall, and the only surveillance was busy keeping an eye out for anyone who might be trying to make it over the top of the wall.

Going through the wall?  Anyone digging through would be caught by the daily drone sweeps, and anyone trying something faster would make too much noise.

Besides, they certainly didn’t expect anyone to be trying to get in.

Faultline touched the wall.  She felt her power magnifying around her fingertip on contact.  She just had to will it, and her power would dance around the contact point, leaving a hole a third of an inch across.  If she really pushed for it, it would extend several feet inside the object.

Her power worked better with multiple points of contact.  She touched with her other fingertip, and felt the power soar between the two, running through the surface like a current.

She let it surge outward, and a fissure appeared.

She tapped one toe against the wall, and power surged from either fingertip to the point of her toe, drawing a triangle.  Moving closer to the wall until she was almost hugging it, she moved her other toe against the surface.  Four points of contact, six lines.

Then she pushed, literally and in the sense of using her power.  The power surged into the object, the lines widening and she swiftly backed away as the resulting debris settled.

Once the dust had more or less cleared, she could make out a tunnel, roughly door shaped.  Her power had destroyed enough of the material that there was barely any debris on the ground.

“Labyrinth,” Faultline said, “Shore it up?  Make a nice hallway?  Taller and wider than this, please.”

Labyrinth nodded.  It took only twenty or thirty seconds before there was a noticeable effect.  By the time they were halfway down the tunnel, there were alcoves with statues in them and torches burning in sconces.

Walking through the tunnel was claustrophobic.  Faultline could handle that, but she could see Shamrock clinging to Gregor.  It made his progress through the narrow tunnel that much slower.

How fragile civilization is, Faultline mused, as she emerged on the other side.  Newter clambered up the side of the nearest building for a vantage point.

Some of it was the Simurgh’s doing, no doubt, but the thing that made her catch her breath was the degree to which things had degraded.  Windows were broken, plants crawled over the surroundings, a building had collapsed a little further down the street.  Stone was cracked, windows shattered, metal rusted.  The buildings, the cars that still sat in the middle of the street, they looked as though they had been left abandoned for a decade, though it was closer to a year and a half in reality.

It didn’t take much.  Animals found their way inside, fires started and spread, and weather damaged the structures.  Once the spaces were partially breached, the wind, sun, rain and temperature were free to wear on the interiors, and everything accelerated.

That damage, in turn, paved the way for other things to take root.  Mold could get into materials and surfaces.  Plants could take root, winding roots into cracks, widening them.  Ice did much the same in the winter months.

Still, it was so much, so fast.

She couldn’t help but think about what Coil had said about the world ending in two years.  However it happened, if it happened, how long would it be before nature had destroyed every trace of humanity, after mankind was gone?

“Pretty,” Labyrinth said, as she emerged from the tunnel.  Her head craned as she looked around.

Faultline and Spitfire gave the girl a look of surprise.  It wasn’t like her to talk on a bad day.

“You think so?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth didn’t venture a response.

“Guess you like different architecture, huh?”

Still no response.  Faultline rubbed the girl’s hooded head, as she might with a dog.

Gregor and Shamrock were the last ones to exit the tunnel.

“All good?” Faultline asked.

“A little much,” Shamrock said.  “Knowing how tall the wall is, how much pressure’s bearing down over our heads… I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and that’s worse than the best times.”

“We have some time before we need to pass through again,” Faultline said, “Maybe Labyrinth can make it wider, shore it up more so you’re more comfortable, for the future.”

Shamrock nodded.  “I hope so.  Thank you.”

“We’re looking for any signs of life,” Faultline said.  “Avoid confrontation if you don’t have backup.  We patrol this area in a pinwheel formation.  We have four people patrolling, each in a different cardinal direction.  Head three blocks out, turn clockwise, travel two more blocks, then zig-zag your way back to the center.  One person always waits with Labyrinth in the middle, so we have a fortified spot to fall back to.  We take turns staying with her, so nobody walks too long.”

There were nods from each of her subordinates.

“Flare if there’s any trouble or any find.  Everyone has their guns?”

Everyone did.

“Gregor and Shamrock babysit during the first patrol, don’t need anyone to backtrack, obviously.  Move out.”

It took only a second for Newter, Spitfire and Faultline to choose their individual directions.  Gregor and Shamrock stayed behind.

Better to give Shamrock a chance to calm down, Faultline thought.  Her boot heels made noise as she walked.

Doctor Foster had been asked to keep an eye on those being released from the city’s quarantine.  Each individual got a tattoo of a bird on one hand or on one arm, marking them as someone affected by the Simurgh.

It had been a short-lived policy, covering only two of the Simurgh’s visits to America in the span of four years.  Shortly after the second event, the idea was abandoned.  The idea, that people could take extra caution around anyone with a tattoo of a white bird, only generated prejudice.  The affected individuals couldn’t find work, they were beaten and they had their lives threatened.

The outcry had meant it was hard to spread the word about what the tattoos were intended for, and the problem was further exacerbated when some people had started getting the tattoos as a matter of protest.  In some poll a year back, something like six out of ten people had been unable to say why the tattoos existed.

But it wasn’t likely that the tattoos were why the Doctor had been asked to oversee this situation.

No.  The person who had assigned the Doctor the job, Christof, most definitely wasn’t working for the United Kingdom.  Christof was, according to data they’d picked up on a job a week ago, supposedly working for Cauldron.

Which meant Cauldron wanted someone expendable that could keep an eye on things.

Faultline noted a message scrawled onto a wall: ‘three thorn babys seen here may twenty. killed two one lived’.

Just below that line, there was another message, drawn in pink chalk that had streaked where moisture had run across it: ‘thanks’.

Faultline walked on.  Where doors were obviously open or unlocked, barriers hacked down, she peeked inside.  There weren’t any signs of people having resided anywhere nearby.

Her patrol carried her back to Labyrinth, Gregor and Shamrock, and the statue-topped gazebo that Labyrinth had put together in the meantime.  Newter had returned and was looking out from a nearby perch.

“No luck?” Shamrock asked.

“Signs of life, not too long ago, but no people.”

Gregor put down the backpack he carried and handed Faultline a water bottle.

Newter scaled his way down the side of the building nearly as fast as if he’d fallen, arriving a few seconds before Spitfire returned.

“Anything?”  Faultline asked.

“Ominous graffiti, not much else.”

“Those… spine babies, was it?”

“No,” Spitfire said.  “I couldn’t read it all.  Very broken English.  But it said something about a Devourer.”

“Let’s move.  We move up six blocks, then do another patrol,” Faultline said.  She thought about the Devourer, and the fact that the number one priority of the people in this place seemed to be warning about the local threats.  “And, until we’re out of here, we walk with our weapons at the ready, flare guns in hand.”

They moved up to the next location, moving deeper into the city.  Faultline was pleased that she didn’t have to order her team to hold formation.  They were practiced enough that they did it naturally.  Newter scouted out front, Gregor took the rear.  Shamrock took the right flank, shotgun at the ready, and Spitfire took the left.  Faultline moved in the center with Labyrinth.

She called the group to a stop when they had traveled far enough.  When they paused to look at her, she gestured for them to move out, staying with Labyrinth.

“Sorry to drag you around like this,” she said.  “Do you feel thirsty?”

Labyrinth shook her head.

“I know new places don’t help you feel more lucid,” Faultline said.  “And it’s more than just today.  We’ve been going from city to city, doing a series of jobs to try to dig up more info.  I wanted to say thank you.”

Labyrinth only stared around her, looking at the buildings.

“Maybe you want to stay here?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth shook her head once more.

“Well, I’m glad.”

A flare detonated overhead.  Faultline whipped her head around.  Newter.

She bolted in the direction he’d gone, holding Labyrinth’s hand, pulling the girl after her.

When she saw Newter, she stopped, let herself breathe.

Civilians.  Five of them.  They were wielding improvised weapons.  A makeshift bow and arrow, spears.  Nothing that posed a serious threat to Newter.

“These are my friends,” Newter said.  He was holding his hands and tail up in the air.  “More will be coming shortly.  We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

“Why are you here?  You’re insane, coming to a place like this.  You know what the Simurgh does.”

“We do,” Faultline said.  “But we have a friend, she’s got a bit of precognitive talent.  Enough that it should clear us of any schemes the Simurgh is pulling.”

Eyes went wide.

“We’re looking for answers,” Faultline said.  “Information, either about or from the monsters who came through that portal the Simurgh made.  Give us something to work with, we’ll show you how to leave.”

“Assuming we want to,” one man said.

Why wouldn’t you?  Faultline wondered.  She chose to be diplomatic and keep her mouth shut.  “Assuming you want to.  I’m sure we could come to another deal.”

“Why do you want to talk to the monsters?” the woman with the bow asked.  She had improvised urban camouflage paint over her face.

Faultline gestured in Newter’s direction, was aware of Gregor and Shamrock arriving.  She turned her head to see Spitfire coming around the corner.  She gestured at her teammates, “These guys are my friends, and they’re my employees.  We want answers about why this happened to them.  Once we have those answers, we decide where we go from there.  If nothing else, it’s valuable info.”

“You’re on their side?” a man with a spear asked.

“Yes,” Faultline said.  “But I could be on yours too.”

The woman with the bow stepped away from her comrades.  Her weapon pointed in their general direction.  “You have a way out?”

“Yes.”

“And you just let us go?  There’s no catch?”

“No catch.”

“I… how do I know I can trust you?”

“You are one of us,” Gregor said.

The woman froze.

“Maddie?” a man asked.

“How did you know?” Maddie asked.

“I know this feeling, of being lost.  Of being very alone and not knowing who can be trusted,” Gregor said.

“How can I believe you?”

“Because we’ve been where you’ve been.  These two don’t remember, they had their memories taken,” Shamrock said, “But I didn’t.  I remember what it was like in there.  And I get why you’re afraid.”

“You were in there?”  Maddie asked, her eyes going wide.

Shamrock nodded.  “One moment, I was going to bed in my temple-school.  In another, I was in a cell.  A cot, a metal sink, a metal toilet.  Three concrete walls, a concrete floor and ceiling, and a window of thick plexiglass with a drawer.  You might know the kind of cell I’m describing.

“They drugged me, then they waited until I started showing signs that something happened to me.  It took them a while to figure out, because my power was subtle.  When they had an idea of what I could do, they gave me a coin.  I had to flip it when the doctor came.  If it came up heads, I got to eat, I got fresh clothes, a shower.  If it didn’t, I got nothing.  I realized I was supposed to control it.  Decide the result of the toss.  When I got good at it, they gave me two coins, and both had to come up heads.”

“How long were you there?” Maddie asked.

“I don’t know.  But by the time I saw the chance to escape, I had to roll twelve dice and each one had to come up with a six.  And if it didn’t, if I got more than a few wrong, they found ways to punish me.”

Gregor put his hands on Shamrock’s shoulders.

“They made me use my power.  I… I think I was one of the people they used to punish the ones who failed their tests,” Maddie said.

“Christ,” one of the men said.  “And the freak has been with us for a week?”

Maddie turned to glare at him.

“If it means anything,” Shamrock said, “I forgive you.  You didn’t decide to punish anyone.  We did what they made us do.”

Maddie flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Come with us,” Faultline said.  “You don’t have to stay with us, but we want to hear what you have to say.”

“I’m a predator,” Maddie said.  “Not because I want to be.  You don’t want me to be near you.”

“You were around them for at least a little while,” Faultline said.  “You can be around us for a few hours.”

Maddie glanced around, then nodded.  “When… when they tested you, did they give you a name?”

“They gave me a number at first,” Shamrock said.  “I couldn’t use my real name or they’d punish me.  When I passed a year of testing, they let me pick a codename.  I picked Shamrock.”

“I wouldn’t pick,” Maddie said.  “So they gave me one.  Matryoshka.  I… I don’t deserve my old name.  So call me by that one.”

“Layered doll,” Faultline said.  Matryoshka nodded.  “Let’s go.  We’ll leave the quarantine area, get you some proper food while we talk.  If need be, we’ll come back and see if we can find more people.  If you wanted to guide us for a return trip, maybe direct us to others, I could pay you.  Get you on your feet in the outside world.”

Matroyshka smiled a little at that.

It took a little while to verify that everything was in order at the hotel.  Nobody had noticed their exit and there weren’t any law enforcement officers stationed nearby.

They entered the hotel room much the way they’d left, with a makeshift ladder leading to the balcony, and quickly settled in.  Matryoshka gorged herself on the groceries Faultline had bought shortly after they’d arrived.  She stared wide-eyed at the television.  It was the first time she’d ever seen one.  It led to her excitedly describing her world between mouthfuls of food.

Faultline visited the bathroom, then stopped as a square of white caught her eye.

A note?

She opened the door to verify it wasn’t attached to anything, then pulled it into the room with the toe of her boot.  Closing the door, she unfolded it with her toe to verify that it didn’t have any powder inside.

Only a message: ‘Front desk.  Message from Brockton Bay.  ASAP.’

Brockton Bay?  Faultline frowned.  That would be Coil.  He was the only one with the resources to get ahold of her group.

She was loath to leave Madison while they were having some success pulling in more information on Cauldron’s operations, but… Coil did pay well.

Well enough to warrant a phone call.

She headed down to the lobby in civilian clothes, with Shamrock as backup.

Oddly enough, there was a wait at the front desk.  A young woman, dark-haired, wearing a suit and fedora, with luggage on wheels.

Arriving at four in the morning?

The woman smiled and tipped her hat at Faultline as she headed to the elevator.  Faultline watched her with a touch of suspicion.  She didn’t relax when the elevator doors closed.  She watched the floor number for the elevator tick upward until it stopped at ‘four’.  Two floors above the rooms her team was in.

“What is it?”  Shamrock asked.

“Gut feeling.”

“About the woman?”

“Just… felt wrong.  Do you mind going upstairs?  Check on the others?  Maybe tell them to be on guard, and get all the nonessentials packed up.  Might be paranoid, but I’m thinking we should change hotels.  Good enough chance we were seen, worth doing anyways.”

Shamrock nodded and headed for the staircase.

“You had a message for me?”  Faultline asked the woman at the front desk.  “Room 202.”

“Yes.  A phone number.”

Faultline nodded.  She took the piece of paper with the number, then stepped outside to call it on her cell.

The person on the other end of the phone picked up on the first ring.

“Yes?” Faultline spoke into the phone

“This is Tattletale,” the voice came through.

“Fuck me.” Faultline groaned.  “How the hell did you find us?”

“Long story.”

“What do you want?  We’re not available for any jobs.”

“Don’t want to hire you for a job.  In fact, bringing your guys into the current situation would be a fucking bad idea.  Pretty much all of you are… well, let’s say it’d do more harm than good.”

“You’re wasting my time, Tattletale.”

“It’s been a long night.  Cut me some slack.  I want to borrow Labyrinth.  I don’t care how many of the rest of you come.  Non-combat situation, use her powers.”

Faultline paused.  “Why do you want her?”

“Because I have a group of people here with very little to lose and nothing left to hope for, and I need them on our side.  I think Labyrinth can give them what they want.”

“Labyrinth’s powerful, but I can’t imagine any situation where she’d be able to give anyone what they wanted.  Her power’s temporary.  The kind of stuff you could do with her power… there’s easier ways.  Other people you could go to.”

“I think,” Tattletale said, and she managed to sound condescending, “That I understand her power better than you do.”

Faultline considered hanging up.

She sighed, then raised the phone back to her ear.  “You wouldn’t be baiting me if you didn’t think you could get away with it.  Cut to the chase.  What are you offering?”

“Three point four million.”

Faultline blinked.  Her surprise at the sum was tempered only by irritation that Tattletale had managed to get her hands on that kind of money.  “Double it.”

“Done,” Tattletale said.

A little too fast.  I’d think she was lying, but that’s not why she was so fast.  She expected me to make a counteroffer.  Probably decided the first amount with that in mind.

Faultline grit her teeth in annoyance.  “I want it in advance.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said, sounding far too pleased with herself.  “And done.”

A little too fast, again.  She had that set up, damn her.  “You have my account information?”

“Coil did.  Don’t worry about it.”

Faultline hung up in irritation.  She considered taking the money and refusing the job, but she -and Tattletale- knew her reputation as a mercenary was too important.

Should have refused.

She made a beeline for her hotel room.  She’d need to check the account information, then move funds to an account Tattletale didn’t know about.

A glance at the display above the elevator showed that it hadn’t moved.  Faster to take the stairs to the next floor than to wait.

Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the screaming.  Faultline flew up the stairs to the door, pushed her way into the second floor, and raced down the hallway to the hotel rooms.

There was blood on the door as she pushed it open.

How to even take this sort of thing in?  How to describe it?

Her team had been destroyed.

Gregor was in the kitchen, on his back.  His chest heaved, and he’d covered much of his upper body in a foaming slime.  What she could make of his face was contorted in pain, scalded a tomato red that was already blistering.

One of Newter’s arms, one of his legs and his tail had each been broken in multiple places.  The remains of the coffee table, the flatscreen television and one door of the television stand lay around him, where he’d sprawled into them.

Matryoshka had unfolded into a mess of ribbons, but knives from the belt Faultline had removed to go down to the lobby had her pinned to the wall in six different places.

Labyrinth was the one screaming, steady, almost rhythmically, with little emotion to it.  From the lack of affect, Faultline might have assumed she was in shock, but it was simply the fugue from her power.  A small mercy – two thin cuts marked her face, and one hand was impaled to the armrest of the couch by another of the small knives.

Shamrock was busy giving Spitfire a tracheotomy.  A fedora filled with slime was plastered to the younger girl’s face, and she was struggling weakly.  Shamrock’s own face was covered in blood from nose to chin, and her efforts to administer the tracheotomy were limited as the fingers of one hand were bent at awkward angles.

“The woman in the suit,” Faultline said, dropping to Spitfire’s side.  She noted the slime.  Gregor’s.  And Gregor had been burned with Spitfire’s breath?  “Power thief?”

Shamrock let Faultline take over, positioning the clear plastic tube that was sticking into the hole in Spitfire’s throat.  She had to spit blood out of her mouth before speaking, “No.  I don’t know.  She came in here and took us apart in twenty seconds.  We didn’t touch her.”

Spitfire coughed, then started breathing at a more normal rate.  She gave Faultline two pats on the wrist, calmer.  A signal of thanks?

“Super speed?  Super strength?”  Faultline asked.

“No.  Don’t think,” Shamrock spat blood onto the floor.  She tried to stand and failed, put one hand to her leg.  “Nothing I could see.”

“A thinker power.  Precognition?  No, that wouldn’t work with your power.  Fuck!”  Faultline scrambled to her feet, hurried to Labyrinth’s side. “Hey, Elle, calm down.  It’s okay, it’s over.  Stop screaming.”

Labyrinth shut her mouth, whimpered.  The cuts to the face were thin.  They’d heal with little to no scarring.  The hand-

Faultline stopped.  There was a piece of paper beneath the hand.

She helped Labyrinth raise her hand where it was impaled, leaving the knife in place.

The bloodstained piece of paper had a message on the underside.

Final warning.
-c

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Plague 12.2

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I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11c (Anniversary Bonus)

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Spitfire had often complained that having a power based around creating flame meant you faced two kinds of opponents.  There were the people who burned, who were the majority.  Civilians fell into this category.  Unless the person with the power was amoral, which Spitfire wasn’t, this actually wound up being a detriment, because of the easy possibility of life altering injuries, death and scars.  The kind of thing that brought heroes down on the villain’s head in full force.  The second group was the foes who didn’t burn.  People in armored suits with enough covering, people with forcefields, people with foreign materials either forming or surrounding their bodies, the list wound up being fairly long.

“Spitfire, run!”  Faultline ordered.

Burnscar wore a red dress and had chosen to go barefoot rather than wear shoes.  Her dark brown hair was a tangled mess above staring green eyes.  Her skin was pale, giving a greater contrast to the red of her clothing and the dark the circles under her eyes.  The round scars of what were likely cigarette burns formed individual rows down from the bottom of each eye to her jaw.  She strode forward through the flames she’d set on the streets outside Faultline’s now-deserted nightclub, Palanquin.  Sweeping her arms to either side, she spread the flames along the breadth of the road, drew the heat into her palms, and then hurled it at her opponents.

Burnscar didn’t seem to have the same reservations about incinerating more vulnerable enemies that Spitfire did.

Gregor the Snail caught one fireball with a hurled glob of slime, extinguishing it.  The other landed in the middle of the group, not striking anyone, but nonetheless driving them apart.  Newter was at one side of the resulting blaze in the middle of the street, Faultline and Shamrock at the other, with Gregor and Spitfire at the back, furthest from Burnscar.

Spitfire turned to run, and Burnscar drew together another fireball, lobbing it forward, where it soared high in the air before it began to drop.  The fireball collided with Spitfire, smashing the girl to the ground.  Flames licked off of her fireproof suit and the pavement around her, and it was long seconds before she was able to start pulling herself to her feet.

Burnscar drew fire up around herself, blinding the others, and in a moment, she was beside Spitfire, clutching the girl’s throat with her fingertips, pushing her down against the ground that was still burning with traces of the fireball’s heat.

Why couldn’t this be one of the areas where the streets were flooded?  Why did Palanquin have to be on this hill?

“Get her!”  Faultline shouted.  Shamrock drew her gun and fired, and Gregor launched a stream of slime toward the spot where Burnscar crouched.  The slime put out the flame where it landed, and in the moment the splashing slime and the billowing smoke obscured her, Burnscar disappeared.

“There!”

Burnscar had emerged from a patch of flames fifteen feet from Spitfire, and was striding toward the girl, ensuring Spitfire was in the way of any potential attacks from the rest of Faultline’s crew.  She seized Spitfire and began dragging her toward an alley, one hand around her throat.  Wherever Burnscar stepped, she left burning footprints, and the flames slowly swelled and spread to join with one another, a trail of fire forming a path behind her.

Newter lunged forward, leaping over the flame that separated him from Gregor and then hopping to the nearest building to grab a bag of trash with his tail.  Twisting his entire body, he whipped the bag at Burnscar.  It struck her, and she staggered back, losing hold of Spitfire.

Burnscar dropped into the flames that covered the pavement and emerged from the flames just behind the others.

Elle, from the second floor room of Palanquin, banged on the window, trying to alert her comrades.

Like a flamethrower, twin streams of fire shot from Burnscar’s hands, striking Shamrock, Faultline and Gregor.  Catching sight of the attack at the last second, Gregor did his best to shield Faultline and Shamrock with his bulk.  Newter threw more trash and rubble towards Burnscar, and succeeded in interrupting her assault on his teammates.

Faultline was on fire, her costume alight.  Gregor slimed her to put it out, then wheeled on Burnscar.

The same instant he turned towards her, the flame around her flared up, consuming her.

They turned to look for her, simultaneously trying to back away from the flames that spread with each of Burnscar’s attacks, and they missed seeing the crouching form in their midst.  Only Elle, from her higher vantage point, was able to see Burnscar.

To say that Faultline and her crew were friends wasn’t meaningful enough.  Elle saw them as family.  And she was helpless to do anything to save them.

Her power was available to her, but the range was too small.  She needed time to soak it into an area, and she’d gone for a walk earlier.  Two hours since she’d gotten back, and her power was limited to her room, the neighboring rooms, the upstairs hallway and the exterior walls of the building that surrounded these areas.  Not enough to reach the street where the fighting was happening.  And if she moved beyond the boundaries, she would be losing ground.  Any time she moved to a new place, beyond the limits of where her power was taking effect, her area of influence shrunk to a few feet around her, only to start gradually bleeding out once more, faster with each passing minute.

She tried using it anyways.  Closing her eyes, she reached for the other worlds.

Pocket worlds, as she interpreted them.  Realities that were a blank canvas to be altered according to her thoughts, both conscious and unconscious.  They were lucid dreams that were big enough, detailed enough, intricate enough to swallow her up, as they so often did.  She could make new ones at a whim, but she found it better to build on what she already had.

There was the high temple.  Faultline and the hypnotist they’d hired had talked her through it, building a place that wasn’t so influenced by Elle’s negative thoughts and ideas.  It was a place she associated with personal triumphs, with her inner strengths.  At the opposite end of the coin was also the bad place.  Of the worlds, it was the biggest by far.  Nothing she could use there, she knew.  She was intimately familiar with every aspect of it.  She had spent a long time there.

Her eyes snapped open as explosion erupted in the street.  She saw Faultline, Gregor and Shamrock tumbling through the air.

Elle clutched her arms to her body.  The lonely hallways… no.  The burning towers.  Definitely no.

The barren ruins.  She’d almost forgotten.  It had been her first attempt at making a world outside of the bad place.  It had worked up until the moment negativity and self loathing crept in through the cracks, filling in details where she didn’t want them.  Ugly details.  What had resulted was a beautiful, solemn landscape rigged with traps and pitfalls, as if the landscape itself was eager to hurt or kill anyone who didn’t watch their step.  As she focused on that world, a small part of her consciousness flew over the landscapes, an image in a second mind’s eye.  Fields of tall grass, collapsed walls half covered in moss, the remnants of an old castle, a stone hut with a tree growing out of it.  She’d always had a soft spot for things that had once been beautiful but had transformed into a different kind of beauty as they aged.  She liked the look of a tree that had grown to splendor and then died, the statue worn by years of hard rain.  This was the aesthetic that had shaped the ruins.  Until everything turned ugly, unpredictable and dangerous.

Today was a good day.  She’d exhausted herself earlier in the week by taking on the Merchants on what she could easily mark as a bad day.  It seemed she was veering to the other side of things: she’d eaten, gone for a walk, even ventured to have a conversation with Faultline.  She could only do those things because her mind’s eye, the gate to those other worlds, was nearly closed right now.  The drawback was that this also meant that the use of her power was slow.  As though she were looking through a spyglass, trying to find a distant detail, she could only take in one scene at a time.

She found what she wanted.  An age-worn statue of a woman in a toga, holding a large urn.  Focusing on it, she pushed.

It was agonizing.  Not the use of her power – that was easy, unavoidable.  Even on a good day like today, her power worked without her asking for it.  The floor under her feet was turning into a stone tile, grass and moss growing in the cracks, as if the ruins were leaking into the real world.  It was agonizing because the emergence of the statue was slow.  Brick folded out of the way as it appeared from within the outside wall of Palanquin.  It slid forth at a glacial pace of a quarter-inch every second, and it wasn’t small.

The fire had spread across the street and to the wall of the building opposite Palanquin.  Burnscar was using it to travel great distances at a moment’s notice, simultaneously spreading the flames further with every attack or spare moment she had.  Newter was quick enough to avoid her attacks while hurling objects at her to attempt to distract and batter her, but he couldn’t approach to make contact with her and knock her out without her burning him, and his range of movement was quickly narrowing as the fires spread.  Not only were new patches of flame created when she attacked, but she frequently paused to will the existing fires to swell and extend further in every direction.

Gregor was hurt, but he was trying to control the spread of the flames, while protecting Faultline and Shamrock.  His skin glistened, which made Elle think he was covering himself in something that would protect him from being burned.

Her power was still so slow.  Only half of the statue had emerged.  Not enough.  She needed the entire thing.

Burnscar had noticed the statue, and paused to pelt it with fireballs.  Elle winced as the head broke free, felt a momentary despair as one arm shattered.  But the rest was intact.  Just two or three minutes.

Gregor caught Burnscar with a stream of slime, and the young woman disappeared in a swirl of fire.

Burnscar had appeared just behind Gregor, Shamrock and Faultline.  Before they could notice and react, she drew a ball of flame into a condensed point between her hands and released it in a violent explosion of heated air.

“No!” Elle screamed, banging on the window.

Faultline wasn’t moving, and Elle couldn’t quite tell through the smoke that covered the street, but she might be burned.  Gregor… Gregor wasn’t moving either, and he lay in a patch of fire.  However fireproof the slime he’d coated himself in might be, he wasn’t immune to being roasted.  Shamrock was limping away, limping towards the statue, and Newter was evading a fresh series of attacks from Burnscar.  Only Spitfire was largely untouched, helpless to do anything against an opponent that was not only fireproof, but who could walk through fires as easily as anyone else might use a doorway to move from one room to the next.

This wasn’t right.  Her team, her friends, her family were all moments away from being obliterated.

She had to focus.  The statue wasn’t enough.  She needed a mechanism.  The one that was attached to the statue in her mind’s eye didn’t work.  Something else.  She searched. A portcullis with a wheel… no, too rusted, the chain too prone to snapping.  Ah, there.  A math puzzle, where a ball was set to roll down a series of tubes, with its path being determined by a series of levers, each moving a paddle that would adjust the ball’s route.

So frustrating.  On her worst days, the days when her view of the other worlds was so expansive that she could barely register the real world, she didn’t have to put things together like this.  She could shape things as she made them come into the real world, and they emerged as quickly as she wanted them.

Fitting everything into the statue, she had to use some of the math puzzle, the lever, some of the statue’s existing mechanism, positioning it all so that they fit together as she pushed it into existence.

A fireball caught Newter in the stomach.  He was knocked from where he clung to the wall, falling to the ground.  He had to roll out of a patch of ground that was licked by orange flame.

Burnscar turned to Shamrock, who was waiting for the lever to emerge.  A fireball was flung at the red-haired woman, who ducked too slowly.  The flame clipped her in the shoulder in its route to punch a hole in the wall, directly where the lever was.  Pieces of the mechanism tumbled around Shamrock.  Gears, levers, paddles and fragments of the switch.

“No!”  Elle shouted, “No!’

Her effort had been for nothing.  Could she cobble something else together?  Would it matter?  Their opponent had an idea of what Elle wanted to do.  She wasn’t going to offer the opportunity.

The last piece of the math puzzle emerged within the brick walls of Palanquin.  Two inches across in diameter, the ball fell along its set route.  Rolling down a slight slope, dropping through one spot where the paddle was pointing down, landing on the next slope, rolling in the opposite direction, over two paddles.

Elle grabbed her chair and shattered her window.  Gripping the sides of the window, ignoring the glass that bit into her fingers, she screamed, “Shamrock!”

Both Shamrock and Burnscar looked up at her.

She slapped the wall with her hand, leaving bloody fingerprints where the glass had cut her, “The ball needs to go right!”

Burnscar launched another fireball at Shamrock, and Shamrock leaped to one side.

“What ball!?”

Elle couldn’t tell her, not without letting Burnscar know.  She could feel the ball making its way down the last slope, dropping down the far left, to where the mechanism and the lower half of the puzzle had been devastated by Burnscar’s fireball.  Shamrock would get a glimpse of the ball through the hole in the wall, as it dropped down… now.

Elle felt the almost imperceptible influence of Shamrock’s power.  The woman was a telekinetic and clairvoyant on the smallest of scales, capable of making small changes and knowing how to use them to make big things happen.  The ball moved a few millimeters to the left, hit a splinter of wood and bounced toward the right, spinning.  It landed, and the spin of its rotation coupled with the help of an additional nudge carried the ball to the right, and down into the chamber behind the statue.

There was a rumble, and water began pouring from the stump of one arm and the urn the statue held.  It poured down around Shamrock, flooding out onto the street to quench the fires on the ground level.  Soon it was only the patches of flame on the walls that remained.

Shamrock raised her gun, aiming at Burnscar, and fired.  Once, twice.  It was hard to tell if the shots hit home, because Burnscar was already wreathing herself in flame, disappearing to appear from the burning wall nearest Spitfire.

Spitfire ran, and Burnscar chased her.  Elle could see Shamrock hesitate, then leap through the curtain of water that poured from the urn, giving chase, hoping to help her teammate.

“No!” Elle shouted.  But her voice was drowned out by the sound of the water.  Soon the pair were gone.

Her phone.  She needed to phone them, let them know.  Where was it?

In the kitchen.  Stupid.  She’d been in one of her momentary fugues when they’d been gathering dinner, she had to have left it there.  And if she ventured any further than the upstairs hallway, maybe the ledge above the dance floor, she would be losing any ground she’d gained with her power here.

A horn… some kind of noisemaker.  A bell?  There was a bell in one area of the barren ruins, if she could only find it.

Burnscar dropped from the burning wall opposite Palanquin.  Retracing her steps.  She looked up at the window that Elle stood behind.

She’s not after Spitfire.  She’s after me, Elle thought, with a moment’s despair.

Burnscar trudged through the expanding pool of water to enter Palanquin’s front door.  The club was empty, there was no power, no music.  Even the employees were attending to their personal lives.  It was just Elle and Burnscar.

It was a minute before the door to her bedroom opened.

“There you are,” Burnscar said.

Elle looked away.

“Hello, old friend,” Burnscar said.

She wasn’t good at talking, even on a good day.  “Mimi.”

“Long time.”

Elle nodded.

“I’m… I’m sorry about your friends.  I didn’t come here planning to do that.  It’s just… you know.”

Elle nodded, trying to keep her outrage off her face.

“I- Fuck.  I’m really sorry, you know?  I can’t help it.”

You can.  You just don’t try hard enough.

But Elle didn’t voice her thoughts.  She nodded.

“I don’t think I did any permanent damage.  They’re alive.”

“Thank you,” Elle managed.  She couldn’t entirely suppress the bitterness in her voice.  Burnscar didn’t seem to notice.

“I- I wanted to talk.  Like old times.”

Old times.  Elle couldn’t help it.  Her thoughts turned to the bad place, the biggest of her worlds, the world she had spent the most time.

“Back when we were both having our good days?  We’d talk, and I really liked those times.  I look back on them fondly.  One of the few moments I treasure.”

Elle nodded.  Behind Burnscar, the door to her room was changing to metal.  A tiny window was expanding, bars already closing down like teeth.  The wall around the door was growing tatters of cloth that rippled like they were blowing in the wind.

“Fuck,” Burnscar said, “I don’t even know where to start.  Since I learned you were in this city, and the group wanted to come here, I’ve been looking forward to this, seeing you again, but now I don’t know what to say.”

“The weather?” Elle tried, lightly joking. The wrong thing to say.

“I don’t want to talk about the weather!” Burnscar snapped the words, in a mixture of desperation and anger.  Her eyes flashed orange and flame flared around her hands, then it all faded.

“Sorry.”

“I… um.  How are you?  How have you been, since you escaped?”

“Been… been good.  Good people.”  So hard to articulate my thoughts, even on a good day.  “They take care of me.  Faultline helped… more than any doctor I’ve had.”

“The doctors,” Burnscar scowled.

“You?”

“I… did you know I escaped at the same time you did?”

Elle shook her head.

“I did.  But I had no place to go.  I had some bad days.  I was lonely, scared.  Some guy tried to convince me to be his whore, earn some cash, get fed… I refused, but he kept coming after me.”

“Sorry.”

“I… I really wanted to be good.  I’d told myself I wouldn’t use my power.  But I had to protect myself, you understand?”

Elle nodded.  The cloth around the door had started to settle into a shape.  Padded walls, lined with barbed wire and jagged rows of glass.  There were stains of shit and blood on some of the cloth, now, growing and swelling.  She tried to will it to stop, to focus on her high temple.  Her safe place.  But looking at Burnscar, that place felt so far away.  It was out of her reach.

Burnscar went on, “So I used it to scare him off… but you know how it works.  You know what happens with my power.”

“I remember.”

“I… the doctors say that using my power, it adjusts the chemical balances and connections in my brain.  Empathy, impulse control, my emotions, they disappear as I use my power, and I can’t help using my power if there’s fire nearby.  It snowballs, because I use my power more when I don’t have that self-control, when I don’t care about the people I’m near, and when I’m in that headspace I don’t want to leave it.”

“Yeah.”  And you retreat into that state to avoid facing the guilt over things you’ve done.  You use it to hide from your own fears.  If I blame you for anything, it’s for that.

Burnscar shook her head.  “If you hadn’t put out most of the fire out there… I dunno what I would have done.”

I have a pretty good idea.

“So I burned the pimp to scare him, then I burned him to hurt him, for payback over his hounding me, and then I couldn’t really stop myself.  I burned him to death.  Fuck. That was the start of a bad few weeks.”

“Sorry.”

“I- before I knew it, the Slaughterhouse Nine had found me.  Shatterbird recruited me.  And now I’m stuck.  I’m trapped.  You know there’s a kill order out on me?  If I try to quit, either the Nine or the cops will off me.  So I keep going, I work for them, and it all just gets worse.”

“Surrender?  Go to the birdcage?”

“They’d find me.  You don’t even know what these guys are capable of.  Our newest member, she replaced Hatchet Face, though he’s still around… kind of.  She can find people.  There’s no place secure enough to keep me safe until they took me to the Birdcage.  I almost think they’d be able to get me in there, if they wanted to.  Siberian?  She’d be able to get me.   Even in the Birdcage.  She always gets her prey.”

“Can’t keep hurting people, Mimi.”

“I have to.  I- I can just use my power.  Stay in that headspace where I don’t feel bad, where I act the way the Nine expect me to.”

The bad place was intruding on the room further.  Elle spoke up, “Mimi…  Can I touch you?  Anchor you?  Don’t want my power to hurt you.”

“So you want to keep me out of your world?”  Mimi smiled and shook her head.  “No way.  Half the reason I came here was because I heard you were making beautiful things these days.  I have to see it.  The things you can make, now.”

Then she turned and looked around.  Her face fell as she saw the padded walls, the bed that had become a cot, the shit stains, the blood, the needles in the corner, the broken glass and the razorblades that were embedded in every surface, waiting to catch anyone unsuspecting that put their hand or foot in the wrong place.

“No,” Burnscar said.

Elle tensed.  “Sorry.”

Burnscar’s face fell.  “This… this isn’t beautiful.  I remember this.”

“Would show you the others… if I could.”

Burnscar’s voice was choked.  “But you can’t.  Because I remind you of the asylum.  I remind you of the bad times, the times you were most miserable.”

Elle looked down at her feet, swallowed past the lump in her throat.

“I thought we were friends.  We had our moments, didn’t we?  Only a few times, when we were both allowed out of our cells, when we were having good days.  A few jokes, stories.  I mean, I know that some of the time I was coming off a bad spell, so maybe I snapped, or I called you names, or threatened you…”

Burnscar trailed off.  Elle stayed silent.

“It.  It wasn’t, um.” Burnscar stuttered.  Her eyes flashed orange.  “Did you see me as a friend?  Don’t you dare lie to me.”

Elle couldn’t come up with a reply.  They used me as an enticement to get you to cooperate.

“Oh fuck.  Fuck me, I’m sorry,” Burnscar said.  She turned away, fumbled with the metal door.  Elle realized it had locked, adjusted things to allow it to open.  Burnscar pulled it open, then stopped in the doorway.  Her back turned, the girl said, “I’m sorry about your friends.  I really hope they’re okay.”

“I do too.”

“I’m glad you’re doing well.  I hope I didn’t fuck everything up.”

It took a bit of courage, but Elle hurried to cross the room and wrap her arms around Burnscar, hugging her from behind.

“We had some good times,” Elle lied.  “Take care.”

Burnscar pulled away, and Elle let the girl go.  She saw Burnscar find the door to the indoor balcony that overlooked the dance floor, heard her run down the stairs.

Elle sank down against the wall, pushing away the sharp things that would cut her with a use of her power.  She put her head in her hands and closed her eyes to the sights around her.  She’d wait a few minutes.  She’d take a few minutes wait until she could be sure Burnscar was gone, then she would leave to check on the others.

It would be weeks before she had made up for the ground she had just lost, in terms of her mental health, in pushing past the bad memories and the bad place.  She reassured herself with the thought that she would get better, in time.  She’d gotten there once, she could get there again.  If the others were okay.

As for Burnscar?  There would be no helping that girl.

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Infestation 11.7

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Newter dropped from the ceiling.  The main part of the mall had only the one level to it, but the roof was arched slightly, and he was dropping from one of the higher points.  I was bad at estimating distances, but what was that?  Fifty feet? Sixty?

He landed in a crouch, a hair behind the girl who was carrying the vial down the pile of rubble to the base of the platform.  As she turned, dust, papers, cigarette butts and fragments of rock stirred around her.  They moved in a counterclockwise orbit, rising, increasing in intensity over a span of one and a half seconds.  Whatever her power did, Newter stopped it, smacking her in the forehead with his palm, almost gently.  She stepped back, as if she’d lost her balance.  The building whirlwind around her dissipated into a billowing cloud of dust and her legs turned to rubber beneath her as she tried to step back once more. She fell.

Newter’s tail encircled the vial before she could drop it, and he flicked it into his left hand.  An instant later, he was racing for the stage, almost casually finding stepping stones as he made a beeline for Skidmark and the rest of the group.  He was going for the case and the vials.

Much of the crowd was running after Newter, rushing for the base of the stage and climbing the heaps of rubble to follow.  In doing so, they were vacating the center of the mall where the casualties lay.  I hated to get closer to the chaos, but I suspected it would be a long time before I had a better chance to find and retrieve Bryce.

“I’m going after the kid,” I said.

“Minor, Brooks, escort her,” Lisa ordered.

On the other side of the mall, Newter had reached Skidmark and pounced for him.  In reaction, Skidmark used his power to coat his cape in a layer of his power.  He raised it between himself and Newter.  Newter was already airborne, unable to change course, but he had the presence of mind to hock a loogie into Squealer’s face.  He bounced off of the cape, knocking Skidmark back, and fell to the ground.

Skidmark used his power to saturate Newter and the ground around him.  As his power took hold, Newter was launched through the rungs of the metal railing and down into the midst of the crowd at the base of the stage.  Skidmark shouted something, but I couldn’t make it out over the noise of the other Merchants.

I tore my eyes from the scene and we hurried toward the heaps of unconscious, bloodied and wounded that lay where the arena had been.  We were halfway there when the entire mall began to brighten.  The barred windows were expanding, and massive torches were lighting on the far sides.  Shafts of orange light extended into the mall’s interior, patterned into diamonds by the meshes of bars Labyrinth had erected.

The wall behind Skidmark and the other ‘upper circle’ members of the Merchants began to bulge inward.  Features took form: a face, ten feet tall.  Protrusions below it, near the floor of the platform, marked emerging fingertips.

Labyrinth wasn’t stopping there.  Minor had to catch my arm and pull me back to keep me from being caught in the path of another effect in the mall’s floor.  The ground cracked and bulged upward as though a mole was tunneling at high speeds just beneath the tile.

“Get back!” someone shouted behind me.  I recognized Lisa’s voice and took her advice, backing away from the hump.  Minor stopped me from backing up into another hump that had appeared behind me.

Stone walls heaved upward from the mounds of broken tile, blocking my path and stopping at a height of twelve or more feet.  As more walls rose around me, I saw a door form to my right, and the corridor to my left had a bend in it.

A maze.  She was living up to her name.

The walls at the outside edges of the mall were altering, now, more faces and body parts making themselves apparent.  Like statuary or reliefs.  Limbs intertwined and nude figures decorated the interior walls of the mall, each tall enough to extend from floor to ceiling, animated so that they moved with a glacial slowness.  With a surprising speed, the interior of the mall was coming to resemble some kind of temple.

I had to admit, I was spooked.  That girl’s power was intimidating when she wasn’t on my side.  She wasn’t all there, mentally, so the only thing holding her back was the person telling her what to do.  If she could make those giant torches, she could set the floor on fire.  Or she could have created spikes instead of walls, without leaving the rest of us any place to run.  That nobody had been hurt was purely by her choice.

Stone poles speared down from the roof.  Looking up, I saw that the edges of the crack in the roof had fanged teeth, and that figures were sliding down the metal poles.  Two female, one obese male.  Spitfire, Faultline and Gregor the Snail?

Not quite.  Faultline and Gregor, yes.  I didn’t recognize the other woman, and she was too tall to be Spitfire with her mask off.  Red haired, slender, older than Spitfire or Labyrinth had been.

She slid down the pole, up until the moment Trainwreck leaped from the stage and caught the base of the pole with his shoulder.  He was built like a football player in a quadruple-thick layer of cast iron protective gear, steam billowing behind him as he tore past the stone pole like it was nothing.  It cracked in four places, and the girl dropped out of the air.

One section of the pole hit the ground in an upright position, and she landed atop it with one foot, wobbling briefly.  Controlling the angle the pole fell, she angled her fall toward a nearby wall of the maze.

It wasn’t enough.  Trainwreck smashed the pole from under her, sending her flying through the air to land in the midst of Labyrinth’s maze.

Labyrinth created a short pillar below the metal case and canisters, and began to extend it towards the gap in the roof.  Skidmark used his power to force the things off the top of the pillar and onto the platform, where they rolled.  A few stray papers fluttered from the case.

There was a crack of gunfire, and I saw the momentary light of the shot to my right.  I couldn’t see over the wall, but I saw Trainwreck lumbering forward, one oversized metal gauntlet raised to protect his head, the only vulnerable part of his body.  I directed some bugs to the scene, and realized that a woman with the exact same proportions as the red-haired woman was firing at Trainwreck.  She’d made it through the maze and back to the skirmish with Trainwreck so quickly?

There was a brief pause in the gunfire, then a single shot fired.  Sparks marked the ricochet between his shoulder, the back of his hand, and the armor that rose behind his head.  He dropped to one knee with a suddenness that suggested he was wounded.

I hurried to the wall.  I could use my bugs to find my way through the maze, getting a sense of the layout, but I needed something faster.  Labyrinth was using her power and adjusting the battlefield with every passing second.  The way things were, given how she wasn’t aware of who I was, I was included among her enemies.  If I didn’t go now and the battle resolved one way or the other, I might lose my window of opportunity to get Bryce.

There was no way I was going back without him.  The intensity of the emotion I was feeling on the subject surprised me.

I hated the idea of going back to Sierra and telling her I’d failed.  Hated the idea of that conversation on top of the news I had about Bryce joining the same Merchants that assaulted her friend with a broken bottle.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t be leader of a territory and know that someone out there was maybe telling others I hadn’t followed through, fighting that constant nagging doubt in the back of my mind that wondered if ‘my’ people were whispering or laughing at me behind my back.

And maybe a small part of it was that my meeting with my father had been a reminder of how important family was.  Bryce was the errant youth, his sister the anxious family member.  Were my emotions here tied to the parallel between them and my father and me?

“Help me over,” I ordered Minor.  There was a crash not too far away as Trainwreck tore through one of Labyrinth’s walls.

“Can give you and Brooks a boost, but not sure if I can follow,” Minor told me, “Maybe if I find a place with something to stand on-”

“That’s fine.  Look,”  I drew an arrow on the wall with my bugs, “I can give you directions.”

There was little surprise on his face at the demonstration of my power.  He gave me a curt nod, dropped to one knee, and wove his fingers together to give me a stirrup for my foot.  I sheathed my good knife, stuffed the spare between the sheath and the strap that attached it to my midsection and stepped inside the bridge of Minor’s hands.  He heaved me up, almost throwing me.

The cut on the back of my arm burned as I found a grip, then hurt twice as much as I hauled myself onto the top of the wall, my toes scrabbling on the untextured surface for traction.  I reached down for Brooks, but he shook his head and waved me aside.  He wanted to come up on his own.

Fine, whatever.

I hopped down into the next corridor.  The far left had an archway leading into one of the more open areas, a circular area that was serving as a clearing for Trainwreck and the red-haired girl to fight.

I crouched down as I reached the doorway, peeking out and trusting my bugs to give me the fuller story of what was going on.  Brooks appeared behind me and crouched, gun raised, his back to the wall.  His breathing was quiet and controlled even after his recent climb and jog.

Trainwreck and the new girl on Faultline’s team were facing off on the far side of this area.  Behind Trainwreck, I saw a section of wall toppling, spotted Faultline dashing through the obstruction as though it were barely there.  She ran up behind Trainwreck and slashed her fingertips across his heel as he was stepping forward.

As he set the foot down on the marble floor, his ankle shattered and his foot broke free of his calf.

He caught the ground with the stump of his mechanical leg, and she darted in close to cut through the knee of his other leg.  He fell onto his back as she slipped between his legs, and she quickly turned to begin using her fingertips to cut down the wall, like a jungle explorer using a machete to hack through brush and vines.  The red-haired woman joined her.

The ground rumbled as sections of the black marble floor rose to form into broad, shallow stairs, leading from the two young women to Skidmark’s stage.  The capes in Skidmark’s group were struggling to find ground to stand on, as they were crowded back to the edges of the platform by the statue that was still emerging from the wall.  A head and two forearms with reaching hands, all in dark stone.

It was eerie, to see the changes that had occurred in our surroundings in the time it had taken me to cross the wall and wait for the fight to pass.  If the attentions of the Merchants had erased any familiarity I had towards the Weymouth shopping center, Labyrinth had cremated the remains and erected something else in its place.  It was a cathedral, dedicated to a goddess that was very real and having a very active hand in current affairs.  Labyrinth.

Which reminded me of the fact that I needed to get through this maze.  Labyrinth’s power was drawing many of the crawling bugs down into the ground as it refurbished the floors and consumed the piles of trash or rubble.  I still had the bugs on the ceiling, but I didn’t want to give our presence away.  Of the relatively few bugs I was willing to use, a share were being used to direct Minor and placing them in strategic locations to get a sense of the layout.  As the maze took shape in my head, I showed Minor the way.

I stepped into the clearing and, double checking nobody was in earshot, I approached Trainwreck.  Brooks followed just behind me, watching my back.

Trainwreck didn’t look like much, just going by the face.  He had a round face, small eyes, greasy hair tied back in a ponytail and scarred cheeks.  He looked like a homeless guy who hadn’t had a shower in a long time.  The only thing setting him apart from the Merchants were the gunshot wound near the corner of his jaw and the steam-powered armor that rendered him strong enough to pound the crap out of Armsmaster.

I asked him in a low voice, “Trainwreck.  Are you still working for Coil, or did you leave?”

He tensed, and his eyes turned my way, though he couldn’t turn his head with the hardware around it.  I stepped back as he used one arm to prop himself up and get a better look at me.

“No idea what you’re saying,” he said.  He gave me a level stare, and I was almost convinced.  But I’d seen him in the parking garage when I first found out Coil was the Undersider’s employer.

“Right, total nonsense, sorry,” I said.  I tried not to show fear as he tried to get to a standing position with his ruined mechanical legs, looming over me.  “But if you were working for the man, maybe you could find some excuse to knock over that wall over there…”

I pointed at the nearest section of wall.

“You’re fucking nuts,” he told me.  He raised his arm, and my legs tensed, ready to leap towards him if he took a swing at us.  As big as he was, without him being able to use his legs, being in close would be safer than trying to leap back out of his reach.

He brought his hand down on the wall I’d pointed at to heave himself to an upright position.  The wall fell as he rested his weight on it.  Using his other hand to help balance himself, he gripped the wall in his heavy gauntlet and flung the section of wall at Faultline and the red-haired girl.  The girl turned and stepped out of the way as the wall rotated in the air, bounced between her and Faultline with mere inches gap between them, and slid back down the stairs.  He didn’t pay any further attention to us as we ran for the gap he’d opened.

My power let me get a general map of the people who were still unconscious or prone, and the bugs wouldn’t stand out too much as they checked the bodies.  I went by body types, trying to find people of Bryce’s height and build.  The path Trainwreck had opened gave us avenues to two people who could have fit the mark, with a third over the next wall.

Good news?  The first of the prone bodies I went to was Bryce.

Bad news?  He was injured.

Scrub’s power had torn through the clusters of Merchants during the fighting, and Bryce’s new ‘family’ was no exception.  The girlfriend was dead, her head and shoulders gone, muscle and fluids flowing out where the flesh had been annihilated.  The girl’s mother was a goner too.  She lay on her back, her face missing.  Had she been behind her daughter, holding her, hit by the same blast?

‘Thomas’ was still alive, the black man with the scar on his lips.  The man who had hurt Sierra’s friend from the church, who had literally torn the guy a new asshole, if I’d gotten Sierra’s meaning right.  Thomas crawled slowly for the nearest arch, breathing hard, his face drawn with pain.  A slice had been taken out of his arm, shoulder, and a section of his back, as though a guillotine had grazed him from behind.  I wasn’t quite sure how he hadn’t died yet, with the amount he was bleeding.

Brooks stooped down to help Bryce, who had gotten off lightly compared to the others.  He was missing a large portion of his right hand, and he’d had the presence of mind to try to loop his belt around the injury to control the blood loss, pulling it tight.  He seemed like he’d lose consciousness any second.  Brooks retrieved some medical supplies from his backpack and began tending to the boy.

I watched Thomas struggle towards the door.

Minor arrived fifteen or twenty seconds after Brooks had started to work on the boy, standing guard while our medic took care of Bryce’s hand.

Brooks helped Minor to get the boy to a standing position, while I watched Thomas struggle on.  He was getting weaker, fast.  The blood loss had been too severe.

Skidmark had several parahumans working for him, and I didn’t know all their powers.  Maybe Thomas would get care.  Maybe Skidmark would attend to his people.

Probably not.  I knew that by leaving him here, I might be leaving him here to die, but the chance of him surviving anyways was pretty slim. Besides, bringing him would slow us down, and I wasn’t sure we could afford that.

I shook my head a little, as if it could cast away the layers of little justifications and excuses I was putting together.  I was searching for a rationale, a reason to leave him behind.  Also, maybe, I suspected I was trying to give a reason to the fact that I had almost no sympathy for the man.

If I was going to leave him there, I’d own up to what I was doing.

Sierra had wanted Thomas and his followers to suffer, and I’d agreed to make it happen.  I couldn’t do anything about Bryce’s girlfriend or her mom.  They were dead, and it had probably been instantaneous and painless.  Thomas, though?

Brooks followed my gaze to Thomas.  In his accented voice, he asked me, “You want me to bandage him up?  Don’t know how much I can do.”

Thomas heard and stopped crawling, dropping onto his belly.  He didn’t look toward me, but I knew he was listening.

“It’s fine,” I told Brooks.  “Focus on the boy.”

He nodded, then helped hold Bryce’s prone form while Minor got a better grip.  Thomas didn’t move, react or say anything.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We ran, and with Brooks keeping one hand on my shoulder to guide me, I glanced behind us to get a sense of what was going on.

The battle was still ongoing.  Gregor the Snail was here, but unlike the others, he wasn’t operating in Labyrinth’s world.  He passed through the walls of the maze, spraying streams of slime at Trainwreck, who had apparently advanced halfway up the stairs by using his hands to help him walk.  Trainwreck retaliated by throwing a chunk of stairs at Gregor with one hand while trying to block the stream of slime with the other.  The section of stairs hit the wall of the maze just in front of Gregor, some of it bouncing over to pass through Gregor.  Not real, as far as he was concerned.

What did this look like to Gregor?  Was he standing in the mall as it had been, while Trainwreck seemed to stand on thin air?  Or was Trainwreck on the ground?  I couldn’t parse it.

Mush had started pulling himself together, but Labyrinth was making his job into a struggle.  His right arm had divided, stretched, forked out and reconfigured until it looked like a mass of reaching veins and arteries.  He plunged it into one of the trash cans that Labyrinth was absorbing into the floor, and when he withdrew it, the tendrils had formed the connective tissue for an oversized hand crafted out of garbage.  His other arm and much of his lower body had already gathered some garbage around it, letting him stand several feet taller than he had before.  The skin of his head and body was peeling off into more tendrils, reaching for more trash and distributing some from his arms to his torso.

From what I could gather, he needed some kind of loose matter to form the body of his other self.  Dirt, compost, trash, maybe even sand.  Problem was, however fantastic his surroundings might have been for this five minutes ago, Labyrinth was screwing him over by cleaning things up, maybe inadvertently.  One upper arm, his naked upper body and his nearly bald head were all exposed and vulnerable.

Scrub had climbed up to one corner of the platform, and was keeping to the edge of the fight.  His intent was clearly to be close enough to Faultline’s group to possibly tag them, but not so close that one of his uncontrolled blasts would catch a fellow Merchant.

My bugs told me we were close to Lisa, Charlotte, Jaw and Senegal.  I caught Minor’s attention and pointed, and he put Bryce down long enough to give me a boost up to the top of the wall that stood between us.  I straddled the wall and waited for Brooks and Minor to figure out how to get Bryce up to me so I could pass him down to the others.

From my vantage point, I could see more of the battle unfolding on the far side of the mall.

One powered Merchant charged Faultline and collapsed through the ground she had strategically weakened.  She kicked him several times in the face before the next member of Skidmark’s group tried to take her on, drawing and pointing a gun.  Faultline drew her feet apart, and then dropped through the floor of the platform in a spray of splinters.

To her right, the red-headed woman was striding towards Scrub.  He aimed a shot and missed by a fraction, and she didn’t even flinch.  Another try, another miss.  As she got close, he let his power go haywire, and a dozen flashes erupted in close vicinity to him.  None touched her.

She had her gun drawn, but she didn’t shoot him.  Instead, she grabbed him by the collar, then wrenched him to one side so he tipped over the side of the platform and fell the twenty or so feet to the ground below.  It wasn’t enough of a fall to guarantee that he was out of the fight, but she seemed confident enough to turn away and move on to the next target before he’d even finished falling.

Gregor was keeping up his steady pressure, alternating between blasting Trainwreck and blasting Mush with one hand and aiming at Skidmark with the other.  Skidmark used his power to push away the worst of the slime, but it was clear he was losing.  His power wasn’t strong, it didn’t have much more push to it than a strong wind.  Any attempt to get it as effective as it had been at the edge of the arena took time and multiple layers of the effect.  In short, Gregor could make the slime more easily than Skidmark could get rid of it.

A knotted bandage tied around Bryce’s good arm was thrown up to me, and I used it to draw his arm up while the others managed his lower body.  Once I had his wrist, I gripped it firmly in one hand, my upper body hugging the top of the wall to keep myself from being pulled off.

Minor gave Brooks a boost and the medic straddled the wall facing me.  We worked together to raise the unconscious boy over the top of the wall and pass him down to where the others waited.

I glanced back towards the fight.  Faultline had emerged from beneath the platform and moved around to the side, and using her power to draw hand holds into the side of the platform.  The cape who’d been aiming at her with the gun stooped over the hole she’d dropped into and looked down to see if she was still down there.  He was oblivious as she hauled herself over the edge of the platform and attacked him from behind, striking him with one elbow, then reversing the turn of her body to sweep his legs out from under him with one extended leg.  The sweep of her foot had apparently coincided with a use of her power, because there was a cloud of stone dust as he collapsed onto broken, uneven ground.  From my angle I couldn’t see for sure, but I thought maybe he’d fallen head first into the hole she’d first descended into.

Brooks and I hauled Minor over, and I waited while he climbed down, since I was already fairly secure where I was.

Skidmark was losing.  It was obvious from where I sat, and I could see his changing expression as he saw Mush collapse beneath Gregor’s sludge and realized he had no friends left.  Gregor, Labyrinth, Faultline and the red-haired woman were all in action, and Skidmark was pretty much alone at this point.

I hadn’t seen Newter or Spitfire, and I couldn’t be sure if he was okay or not.  Sure, the Merchants could have hit him with weapons rather than their bare hands, but he was quick, he had his tail, and he only needed to touch someone to drug them out of their minds.  Spitfire might be the one babysitting Labyrinth somewhere out of the way.

It had to suck for Skidmark, losing like this.  He’d risen to power based on a streak of good luck and momentum rather than any talent, deed or ability.  Now it was falling apart.  He’d lost, he’d had his ass kicked in front of the bulk of his followers, and he would likely never regain what he’d had.  Not that I felt bad for him.  There was a kind of justice to it.

He didn’t even have a power that would let him go down in a blaze of glory.  No, his final act here would be one of petty spite.

His power streaked from his hand to the ground where the canisters and metal case sat.  I could see Faultline’s expression change behind her mask, saw her set her feet and start sprinting for the case before Skidmark’s power even took hold.

The metal box and canisters launched out over the edge of the platform and into the air above the crowd.  Only a few papers escaped the case at first, but his power had saturated the insides of the box.  Just after reaching the apex of its flight, his power seized the contents and the case expelled everything from within.  Papers slid off one another and into the air, forming a small cloud.

“Taylor!” Lisa shouted.

I knew what she wanted.  I drew clouds of my bugs from the ceiling, catching the papers that weren’t saturated with Skidmark’s power, collecting my bugs on them.  I could have maybe carried them directly to me with enough bugs, but I found it easier and more discreet to use the bugs and nudge the papers into floating on the air currents, like paper airplanes without the ‘airplane’ aspect of things.

As they got close, I took a firmer hold over them and moved them directly to us.  The papers crumpled as my hands closed around them.  Four or five pages.  I couldn’t be sure two might have been stuck together.

“We need an exit,” I said, as I hopped down from the wall.  I handed Lisa the papers.

Lisa nodded, “I’ve been thinking on that.  Look.”

She pointed at one corner of the mall.  It looked like any other section, heavily altered by Labyrinth’s powers.  The shops had been almost entirely consumed by Labyrinth’s powers, and were further shrouded by the floor-to-ceiling statues of human figures that stuck out of the walls.  In the corner Lisa was pointing at, there were male and female figures, expressions solemn, hands reaching, moving so slowly I might have thought it was my imagination.  The shop below was nearly gone, the entrance nearly covered up.

“Not seeing it,” I said.

“Look at how they’re standing.  The male figure is sticking out of the left wall, reaching with his right hand, the female figure is doing the opposite.  Look past them, at the corner.”

I did.  Between the figures was the point where the two exterior walls of the shopping center joined… nothing jumped out at me.  The walls were bare.

“I don’t see it,” I repeated, as she tugged on my arm and started running forward.  As a group we started moving toward the corner.  “What am I looking for?”

“Nothing!  There’s nothing there because her power isn’t extending to that corner.  She’s too far away, on the roof at the other side of the mall. Which means the interior of that shop isn’t affected by her power!”

However ominous the giant statues were, they didn’t react to our passing.  The exit was small, barely three feet across.  If Lisa hadn’t given me her reasoning, I wasn’t sure I would have had the guts to go through.  It was spooky to think about putting myself in a smaller space like the store interior and having it close tight behind me.

The bodyguards had to go through the doorway in a crouch, and Minor dropped Bryce to let the others drag him inside, just so he could fit.

As Lisa had suggested, the shop interior was largely unaffected by Labyrinth’s abilities, though it had been trashed by looters and the effects of Leviathan’s attack.  We found the back rooms, and Jaw kicked the door open.  From there, we made our way to the emergency exit, cleared rubble away and escaped into the parking lot.

A handful of others had found escape routes too, I noted.  Merchants were crossing the parking lot at a run, or helping wounded buddies limp away.  We weren’t so conspicuous.

I hurt.  I’d been cut on the arm, and I’d taken my lumps in too many other places to count.  My knuckles and fingertips were scratched raw from climbing the walls of the maze and moving rubble, my cheekbone throbbed where I’d been elbowed, and my fucking contact lenses were still irritating.  Never ever something I could get used to, even with other things taking up my attention.

But we’d made it.

We moved at a light jog for a good distance before Brooks called us to a stop.  We lay Bryce down for him to look at, and he decided we needed call for a pickup to get the boy more serious medical attention.

While we waited for the car to arrive, Lisa, and I sat down on a nearby set of stairs.  The other bodyguards were still on duty, still watching for trouble.  Charlotte stood a distance away, hugging herself.  She looked like she wanted to leave, but lacked the courage to go alone.

I was going to go reassure Charlotte, but Lisa retrieved the papers I’d given her and smoothed them out against her leg, and the widening of her eyes caught my attention.

“It’s a letter or contract from the people who made the stuff, talking to the guy who’d bought this stuff.  Let’s see, we have… page two.  Pages eighteen and nineteen.  Page twenty-seven.  Page sixteen.  Wonder if we can put a narrative together.”

“You probably could,” I said.

She glanced over one page, then handed it to me as she moved on to the others.  I read it.

client one, and clients two through six for confidentiality purposes.  For clarity, and to help ensure that the proper clients receive the intended products, we must restate facts for client one to double-check.  Client one is the negotiator for each of the clients, guardian of clients two and three and is not intending to consume the product.

This cannot be stressed enough.  Client one is not to share or use any of the product intended for other clients.  Ignoring this warning or failing to adhere to any other warnings or directions within this documentation will compel Cauldron to carry out the countermeasures and call in all debts noted in sections 8b and 8c on pages seventeen, eighteen and nineteen.

Clients two through six are noted here in as much detail as is allowed given the agreed-upon confidentiality.
■  Client two is the elder of client one’s two relatives noted here, female.
■  Client three is the younger of client one’s two relatives noted here, male.
■  Clients four and five are client two’s friends.  Client four is female.  Client five is male.
■  Client six is the friend of client three, male.
Both vials and protective containers are noted with the numbers specific to each client, each containing the requested upon products from the catalogue.

I wish to give written evidence of the verbal exchange between Cauldron and client one on February 18 2011.  Client one is informed that client four scored a borderline failure on the psychological testing and that results may lead to a Deviation scenario

“What’s on the other pages?” I asked.

“Sixteen is accounting.  Bank statements, confirmation of money exchanged, a list of what was bought.  Seven figures base price, more for this Nemesis program, still more for some powers.  Don’t have all the pages I’d need to get it, but I’m getting the sense the more unique powers and the stronger ones cost way more.”

‘The sense’, she’d said.  Her power filling in the blanks.

“Pages eighteen and nineteen refer back to something called the ‘Nemesis program’, potentially revoking it, they’re talking about debts, services required by this ‘Cauldron’ using the clients’ powers.  There’s a bunch of specifics on how the time, effort and risk of said services would factor in with one another.”

“People can buy powers?  How many people are doing this?”  I felt a touch offended at the idea.  I’d earned my powers through my hardships.  Most of us had.

“Enough that there’s a whole enterprise here with a private army.  There’s this bit that very politely notes that breaking the rules will get you hunted down and executed by Subjects, capital S.  Clients are warned that these guys are entirely loyal to Cauldron, will not accept bribes.  And these Subjects are apparently something different from Deviations.”

“Cauldron calls us Subjects.  The PRT calls us Case 53s,” a voice said from above us.  “Regular people call us monsters.”

Our bodyguards wheeled on the spot, a set of guns training on Newter, where he clung to the side of the building.  They had been covering the possible approach points from the ground.  They hadn’t been expecting trouble from directly above us.

“I heard of the Case 53 thing,” Lisa told him, backing away.  “The rest is new.  You work for them?  No.  But you’re related to this.”

“Gregor, Shamrock and I were test subjects.  Guinea pigs to test the new formulas, so the buyers don’t get fucked.  According to Shamrock, three in five of us don’t even survive.  One in five Subjects are retained and brainwashed so they can protect the business and enforce the contracts.  Shamrock was going to be one of them, but she escaped.  The rest of us have our memories removed, and we’re released as part of the ‘Nemesis program.'”

“Which is?”

Newter glanced at the papers, “I’d really like to know.”

“So you followed us.”

“Something about the way that one moved,” Newter pointed at Jaw with his tail, “Reminded me of some other mercenaries I’ve come across.  Don’t bother shooting, by the way, I’m too quick.”

Lisa gestured, and the bodyguards lowered their weapons.

Newter frowned, “I gathered you were mercenaries, decided to spy, but finding you’d taken the papers was a surprise.  Who are you?”

Lisa looked at me, without a ready answer for once.  I looked over at Charlotte and sighed.  She’d already put some of the pieces together.  She could probably figure it out from here.  I might as well control when that happened, so I wouldn’t get caught off guard further down the road.

I raised the piece of paper, as if to hand it to Newter, and I directed bugs to cluster on it.  In moments, the half of the paper closest to him was dark with various flies and creepy crawlies.

Charlotte’s eyes widened.  This was apparently her putting the last piece into place.

“Ah, Skitter,” he said.  Apparently my having saved his life once and gifting him a paper bag filled with money didn’t do much to ease his wariness.  He wasn’t any less guarded when he asked, “Why are you here?”

I pointed at the unconscious Bryce.  “An errand.  Didn’t mean to get in your way.  I only grabbed the papers as a spur of the moment thing, and because they would’ve been ruined if they’d just drifted all over in there.”

“That wasn’t much of a concern.  One of my teammates is collecting the papers as we talk, and I expect she’ll find nearly all of them.  The ones that she could find with some luck, anyways.”

“We’re honestly not looking for trouble, and  I have no problem with giving you these.” I banished the bugs on the paper and stepped forward to extend it towards him.

Lisa followed my cue, offering the others, “Wouldn’t mind copies of whatever you’ve got.”

Newter frowned.

Before he could say anything, Lisa hurried to add, “I’m good at figuring stuff out.  I’m a fountain of knowledge.  I want to know more about this stuff, and I could help you guys in exchange for what you’ve already got.”

“I’d have to ask Faultline.  She doesn’t like you.”

Lisa grinned.  “And I don’t like her.  But she’s not stupid, either.  She knows this is mutually beneficial.”  Lisa drew a pen from her pocket and scribbled on the back of one page.  “My number, if you’re interested.”

He took the sheets, looked them over, then rolled them up and stuck them in his back pants pocket.

“We’ll be in touch one way or another,” he said.

Then he was gone, around the side of the building and up to the roof in heartbeats.

I looked at Charlotte, and she shrank back, as if I could hurt her by looking at her.

Which was dumb.  It was fairly obvious to anyone who considered my power that I didn’t need to look at people to hurt them.  Not that I’d hurt her, anyways.  She’d done nothing to deserve any such thing, beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Charlotte, Bryce and Sierra.  The civilians.  I still had to figure out how to deal with them.  My heart sank.  Social interaction: not where my talents lay.

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Infestation 11.6

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“Is he for real?” I looked to Lisa for an answer.  “Can they do that?”

“Don’t think he’s lying.”

The crowd roared, and I turned to see why, just in time to see the aftermath of the first attack.  One of the Merchants in the ring had just bludgeoned someone with a length of pipe.  Backing away, he found someone he knew, and through some unspoken agreement, they drew together, each protecting the other’s back.

Others were having similar ideas.  Groups of friends were banding together, leaving others alone.  One of the loners found another guy without any friends around, shouted something I couldn’t hear, and they drew together.  His new ‘friend’ turned and struck him down from behind not two seconds later.  The traitor got his just reward when three young men and a grungy looking old man tackled him to the ground and started beating him.

At the corner nearest to us, a woman got smashed in the nose.  The spray of blood landed in the area of Skidmark’s power and shot straight back into the melee.

Inspired by this sight, a man who stood outside the ring grabbed a piece of rubble and threw it down at the edge of the ring.  The chunk of concrete flew into the massed people, striking a man who was crouching and trying to avoid the worst of the fighting.

This act started a chain reaction.  The audience turned on the man who’d launched the chunk of rubble, clustering around him, punching and kicking him, and shoving him to the ground.  Others were inspired by his idea, and did much the same thing, using Skidmark’s power to pelt the people in the arena.  One man helped by a kid who might have been his son upended a trash can on the glowing ground to send rotted food and other rubbish flying into the ring.  Others moved to stop them or shove anyone who got close enough onto the colored ground.  The violence was escalating and it didn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

“We should go,” Lisa said.  She turned to Jaw and ordered, “Bring the boy.”

Jaw grabbed Bryce by the shirt and hauled him to his feet.  He pointed at the girl who had been sitting next to Bryce, “And her?”

“Leave her.” Lisa called out, raising her voice to be heard over the screams and cheering.  She said something else, but I couldn’t make it out.

The crack of a gun being fired went off somewhere.  Instead of stopping the crowd, it seemed to provoke them, pushing those who hadn’t been participating into action, like runners who’d been waiting for a starter’s pistol.  It was as though the Merchants felt more secure with their hands around people’s throats than they did trying to get away.

Skidmark gripped the railing as he hunched over it, grinning a smile with teeth that seemed to be every color but white.  His eyes were almost glittering as he watched the chaos he’d set in motion.

We moved as a group, Lisa’s soldiers in a tight circle around us with Bryce, Lisa, the rescued girl and me in the center.  We made our way toward the nearest exit, but our way was barred by an unfolding brawl between two groups a good distance from the main spectacle.  Rivals?  Enemies seeing an opportunity to exact vengeance for some past event?

The girl who’d been on the bench with Bryce ran for the thick of the melee surrounding the ring.  She was shouting, almost screeching, “Thomas!  Mom!”

Bryce struggled in an attempt to go after her, but Jaw held him firm.

I almost missed what happened next.  A woman from the group fighting in front of us ran, and a band of young men charged after her, which brought them just in front of us.

We collectively backed out of the way, but Bryce had other intentions.  The boy wrenched out of Jaw’s grip and threw his shoulder into the small of Senegal’s back.  The man was only barely able to keep from stumbling forward into the charging Merchants, but with his attention elsewhere, Bryce managed to slip past.

I joined Minor and Brooks in giving chase, and though Minor was bigger and stronger, I had the advantage of a slight build.  I ducked between the people and followed Bryce into the thick of the ‘audience’.

Bryce had reached his girlfriend, and wrapped his arms around her.  Still holding her, he turned to see us approaching.  I was in the lead, and Minor close behind me.

He looked the other way, past the glowing perimeter of Skidmark’s arena, and I followed his gaze to where a middle-aged woman with bleached blond hair and a taller black man with a scar on his lips stood.

I recognized them from Sierra’s description.  They were the same people who had attacked the church.

The man -Thomas?- beckoned with a wave of his arm, and Bryce and his girlfriend ran, dropping to the ground as they touched the border of the ring.

“No!” I shouted, as the effect of Skidmark’s power sent them careening into the ongoing free-for-all.  My voice was lost in the cacophony of the screaming, shouting, hollering crowd.

I stared helplessly at the unfolding scene.  The two teenagers managed to get to their feet and gather together with Thomas, the mother, and one or two others.  They were soon lost in the jumble of people that were all punching, kicking and strangling one another, spurred on by adrenaline, self-preservation, alcohol, stimulants and greed.  There was little enough room that when someone fell, they were trampled by those that were still fighting.

Minor reached me and ushered me back to the others, and we backed as far away from the fighting as we could.

The moment I saw Lisa, I asked her, “Should I-” I left my question unfinished.  Should I use my bugs?

“No.  The moment an enemy makes their presence known, Skidmark might try to break this up and send the crowd after any unfamiliar faces.  Not saying they’d get us, but they could, and there’d be other victims too.”

“Fuck.” I looked at the ongoing fighting.  “We should do something.

“I’m open to ideas,” she said.

“Can we- can’t we run?” the girl we’d rescued asked.

“Look, um, what’s your name?” Lisa said.

“Charlotte.”

“Charlotte, we came to get that kid.  My friend feels it’s important, and she’s usually got a pretty damn good reason for doing what she does.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“So it’s up to her, what we do here”

What were our options.  Using Lisa’s power?  I wasn’t sure how it applied here.  If she had a way of addressing the audience, maybe there was something she could say to turn the tide, or turn them against their leaders… but the only way to do that would be to get the microphone Skidmark had.

We had Lisa’s soldiers, but no matter how well-trained they were, there was a certain point where fighters in quantity overcame fewer fighters of higher quality in a brawl.  Not to mention that some of the Merchants had guns.  The great equalizer.  I was pretty sure Lisa’s soldiers would be packing, but the problem with guns was that they drew attention, and we definitely did not want to fall under too much scrutiny.

This was what the Merchants were.  Even less organized than the ABB, they were humans reduced to pack behavior, with Skidmark and his people acting like kids who would put animals in a cage and shake it set them on each other, instead of house-training them.  None of this made the Merchants any less dangerous, though.  Just the opposite.

I had no options here, in the face of this.  The most I could do would be to use my power on the entire crowd, and that would turn this already disturbed situation into something else entirely.

“We hold our ground,” I told Lisa, “Unless things get bad enough that we’re at risk.  We wait for the fight to end, we see if we can find him, and we make our exit.  Sticking around also means we can get more info on what Skidmark’s got in those vials and where he got them.”

“Okay,” Lisa confirmed.  “That works.”

The minutes that followed were among the longest I’d experienced in my life.  It wasn’t a tedious, slow, agonizing passage of time like I’d experienced in the hospital bed, waiting to find out if I was being arrested or if my back was broken.  No, these minutes stretched on because there was so much going on, and I couldn’t lose my focus, look away or pause for contemplation for a second.

Different groups tried to pick fights with us.  It was nonsensical, given that we weren’t even in the ring, but adrenaline was running high and we stood out because we were apart from the rest of the fighting, isolated.  We had stuff they could take, and warm bodies they could… well, warm bodies.  It was enough.

We tried to hold a formation, with the bodyguards holding the outer perimeter and the less experienced combatants, myself included, in the center.  It quickly became apparent that these things didn’t really hold up in a real combat situation.

For one thing, our enemies quickly figured out what we were trying to do and tried to force Lisa’s soldiers to break ranks.  They would hang back and throw things, or stay just out of reach as they held weapons at the ready, looking for a moment when our front-line fighters were distracted or otherwise occupied.  It forced Lisa’s soldiers to move out of formation to deliver with the enemy with a few decisive hits, then back up to close the gap in the line.

That was the plan, anyways, but sometimes the opponent was too nimble to be taken down, and other times, they delayed Lisa’s people enough that someone could slip through the line and attack one of our less capable combatants, myself included.

I held a knife in each hand – my combat knife and the one I’d taken when we’d rescued Charlotte.  When I was forced to fight, I avoided lethal strikes.  I had a sense of where the major arteries were and avoided them, even when I knew I could make a quick cut at someone’s wrists or neck.  Holding back didn’t do me any favors, and I got smashed in the left ear once, struck in the gut and chest a few times, and a nail that was stuck through someone’s makeshift club sliced the back of my upper arm.

Still, Lisa’s soldiers afforded me time to breathe.  I remained vigilant for any break in ranks and incoming attacks.

My arm smarted where I’d been cut, and my ear throbbed.  I swallowed hard, glancing towards the ring, where people lay in heaps, and only two-thirds of the combatants were either injured, unconscious, dead or playing dead.

Feeling pressured, Senegal reached for his gun, but was forced to duck back and to the side to avoid being bludgeoned by a heavy metal lock one of the Merchants had clipped to the end of a length of chain.  The follow-up swing knocked his weapon from his hand.  Someone else, a stocky man with eyebrows like caterpillars, moved through the gap to charge for me bare handed.

Could be worse.  I set my balance and readied to strike with my knives, waiting until he closed in and-

And I was somewhere else.  It was like remembering something profound that I’d forgotten.  I’d seen this before.

Huge creatures filled my perception.

It was hard to say how I knew they were two different creatures, when each of them existed in multiple parallel spaces all at once.  Countless mirror moved in sync with one another, each occupying the same space, just as solid as the others, differing in how they moved and the worlds they interacted with.  Each of them folded, unfolded, expanded and shifted without taking more or less space.  I couldn’t wrap my head around it, even as I felt there was something like a pattern there.

Some distant part of me realized I’d seen something similar to that folding and unfolding once, in a much simpler form.  A tesseract, a fourth dimensional analogue to the cube.  The difference was that while the cube had six flat faces, each ‘side’ of the tesseract had six cubes, each connected to the others another at each corner.  To perceptions attuned to three dimensions, it seemed to constantly shift, each side folding or reshaping so that they could all simultaneously be perfect cubes, and each ‘side’ was simultaneously the center cube from which all the others extended outward.

The primary difference between these things and the tesseract was that these beings I was looking at were alive, and they weren’t simple models I was viewing on a computer screen.  They were living entities, lifeforms.  There wasn’t anything I could relate to any biology I knew or understood, nothing even remotely recognizable, but they were undoubtedly alive.  They were enigmas of organs that were also limbs and also the exteriors of the creatures, each simultaneously some aspect of the entity as it flowed through empty space.  It didn’t help that the things were the size of small planets, and the scope of my perceptions was so small.  It helped even less that parts of them seemed to move in and out of the other dimensions or realities where the mirror images were.

The pair moved in sync, spiraling around one another in what I realized was a double helix.  Each revolution brought them further and further apart.  Innumerable motes drifted from their bodies as they moved, leaving thick trails of shed tissues or energies painting the void of empty space in the wake of their spiraling dance, as though they were made of a vast quantity of sand and they were flying against a gale force headwind.

When they were too far away to see one another, they communicated, and each message was enormous and violent in scope, expressed with the energy of a star going supernova.  One ‘word’, one idea, for each message.

Destination.  Agreement.  Trajectory.  Agreement.

They would meet again at the same place.  At a set time, they would cease to expand their revolution and contract once again, until they drew together to arrive at their meeting place.

-the Merchant caught me off guard, as I reeled from the image of what I’d just seen.  He caught me across the cheekbone with his elbow, and pain shot through my entire skull, bringing me halfway back to reality.  Someone grabbed me, her chest soft against my back, her grip around my shoulders painfully tight.  Charlotte?  Or Lisa?

The shift from what I had seen to relative normalcy was so drastic that I could barely grasp what I was sensing.  I opened my mouth to say something and then closed it.  I couldn’t unfocus or take in the scene as a whole, as the entirety of my attention was geared for seeing… what had I been looking at?  It escaped me as I tried to remember.  I shook my head, striving and failing to see past the countless minute details or the shape of things: the way the Merchant’s facial features seemed to spread out as he advanced towards me, the contraction of his body as he bent down, the nicks and brown of rust on the knife he picked up, the one I’d dropped.  I still held my good knife.

I closed my eyes, trying to blink and fix the distorted focus, and it only helped a little.  I looked to my left for help, saw Minor and Jaw with their hands full, their movements too hard for my eyes to follow.  To my right?  Lisa was slumped over, and Brooks held her.  Merchants were closing in on them.  Senegal stood in front of me, and though his gun was gone, he was using the length of chain that he’d taken from one of the Merchants to drive our opponents back and buy us breathing room.  It wasn’t enough.  Three capable fighters weren’t able to protect seven people in total.

I used my power, and wrenched my eyes closed.  It helped more than anything, as the tactility of my swarm sense gave me a concrete, solid sense of the things around us.  Many of the Merchants had lice on their skin, in their clothes and on their hair.  A small handful of flies buzzed around the area.  With a bit of direction to guide those flies to where I needed them, I had a solid sense of my surroundings and what the enemy combatants were doing.

With panic and disorientation nearly overwhelming me, I had to resist the urge to use my power to call a swarm together.  Using this many bugs, to get a sense of what was going on?  It wouldn’t attract undue attention.  I let bugs gather on the ceiling of the mall, drawing them down through the large crack where part of the roof had caved in, as a just-in-case.

I kept my eyes closed as I fought back, pulling out of Charlotte’s grip to strike at the Merchant, cutting him across the forehead.  He growled something I couldn’t make out and charged me.  Knowing I wouldn’t be able to beat him in any contest of strength, I threw myself to one side, landing hard on the ground and nearly tripping Senegal.  I brought my knees to my chest, and then I kicked outward to strike him in the calf with both heels.

I wasn’t thinking straight.  I should have predicted that he’d fall on top of me.  His shoulder hit my chest, his body weight heavy on top of me.  His knife hand was trapped under his body, near my waist.  I was more fortunate, with my right arm free, and I pulled the knife’s point across his ribs, aiming for a shallow cut that hurt more than it injured.  He screamed and dropped his weapon, and I scrabbled to slide it back towards Charlotte, Brooks and Lisa.

Senegal turned and kicked my attacker away from me.  While Senegal used the lock on the end of the length of chain to strike the man in the jaw, I tried to stand.

Stupidly, I’d opened my eyes as I stood, instead of trusting to my power to keep a sense of the immediate situation.  Motion sickness hit me like a sack of bricks, and I nearly fell over.  Charlotte caught me to keep me from tipping over, only narrowly avoiding stabbing herself on my good knife.

“Oh my god,” she murmured.  “You’re…”

Had I given myself away?  I hadn’t used that many bugs.

No, it was something else.  I could tell from the flies I’d placed on her head that she was looking up.  Her attention turned to me, then Lisa, and then back to the higher object.  I forced my eyes open, controlling my movement and my breathing to reduce the threat of nausea, and saw she was looking at Skidmark’s platform.

Skidmark was slumped against the railing, struggling to his feet.  Squealer, Mush, Trainwreck and their other subordinates weren’t faring much better.

Skidmark grabbed his microphone and broke into laughter, the nasty chuckles echoing through the area.

“Seems like one of you assdrips just earned his stripes,” he cackled.

I saw a flash of white from within the ring and it dawned on me what had just happened.

Another flash sparked in the ring, then a second.  Both were in close proximity to a boy no older than I was.  White smoke poured from his eyes, nose, ears and mouth, with smaller traces flowing from his scalp, stirring his hair.

He flinched as someone whirled on him and raised their weapon, and a burst of white light appeared two feet to the other person’s left.  A miss.  The person swayed toward where the flash had been, as if it had pulled at him.  The glowing boy stuck one arm out, towards his target, and another flash of white appeared a yard behind his target.

The man charged, and the boy tried a third time.  The blast intersected the man, and when it faded, the man’s upper arm, forearm, elbow, and the right side of his torso and hip were gone.  Blood gushed from the area where his flesh had been carved away by the light, and his dismembered hand dropped to his feet.

The boy screamed in some combination of horror, pain and rage, and flashes of the whiteness erupted randomly around him.  Some caught people who were lying prone on the ground, others hit standing combatants, while most simply hit thin air.

A trigger event.  I’d just seen someone have their trigger event.

But what had happened to Skidmark’s group, Tattletale and I?  I could vaguely remember something, thought about trying to put it into words, as if describing it could help call it to mind in a way that I could describe it, but they disappeared as I reached for them.  I was reminded of Imp’s power.  Before I could get a handle on it, I’d forgotten entirely, and I was struggling to even remember what I was trying to do, my thoughts muddling the idea of it with my attempts to get my bearings.

And Charlotte, who was helping me stay balanced on my feet, was staring at me wide-eyed.  I remembered her exclamation of surprise.

If everyone on stage with powers had been affected, and Lisa and I were reacting the same way, it couldn’t be that hard for her to put the pieces together.  Charlotte knew.

I looked to Lisa, for advice or ideas, but she was still slumped over, and she wasn’t recovering.  Why?  If this was some kind of psychic backlash from someone else having their trigger event, had she maybe been hit harder because of her power?

I hurried to her side, while Brooks turned to rejoin the fight and help re-establish our front lines.

“Lisa!” I shook her.  She looked at me, her eyes unfocused.

“They’re like viruses,” she said.  Her voice was thin, as if she were talking to herself.  “And babies.  And gods.  All at the same time.”

“You’re not making any sense, Lisa.  Come on, get it together.  Things are pretty ugly right now.”

“Almost there.  It’s like it’s at the tip of my tongue, but it’s my brain, not my tongue,” her voice was thin, barely audible, as though she was talking to herself and not to me.  “Still fillin’ in the blanks.”

I slapped her lightly across the face, “Lisa!  Need you to come back to reality, not go further into your delirium.”

The slap seemed to do it.  She shook her head, like a dog trying to shake off water.  “Taylor?”

“Come on,” I helped her to her feet.  She almost lost her balance, but she was still recuperating faster than I had.

Charlotte took over the job of ensuring Lisa was okay, and I moved forward to help back up the other guys.  With a knife in each hand, I stood behind the trio of Brooks, Senegal and Minor, ready to stop anyone who tried to slip by.  I kept my eyes closed.  I could manage so long as I didn’t try to move and keep my eyes open at the same time.  It was swiftly receding.

The last group to tackle us had largely been beaten back.  Another group made some threatening moves, but they seemed to be in rougher shape than us.  Their leader was an amazon of a woman with a wild look in her eyes and matted hair, and I could see concern flash across her face as she looked us over and noted the disparity in the condition of our groups.  It struck me she was in a bad spot, knowing her group would be thrashed if she took us on, but at the same time, she couldn’t order her guys to back off without looking like a coward.

Whatever decision she would have made, we didn’t get to find out.

“Stop!” Skidmark hollered into his microphone.

It took a full minute for everyone to break off in the fighting and back off to a point where they didn’t feel immediately threatened.

So many injured.  How many of his own people had Skidmark just lost in this stunt?

Did he care?  He stood to gain five new parahumans for his group.  Six if you counted the guy who’d had his trigger event.

“If we wait any longer, there’s only going to be one of you cockbiters left in the ring!  We got five of you fuckers left, and that’s all we need!”

Only five?  There had been at least eighty in the ring at the beginning, and still more had joined the fight afterward, one way or another.

I could see the remaining five as the audience moved back to give them space.  A family of three, it seemed, a woman with a gaping wound in her stomach, her hand crimson where it pressed against the injury, and the boy who’d had his trigger event.  I didn’t see Bryce or his new ‘family’ in the mist of the people retreating from the scene.

A flash of light marked another uncontrolled use of the new cape’s power.  It struck close to the ground, removing the leg of someone who lay unconscious or dead on the ground, but it left the ground perfectly intact.  Why?  When it consumed clothing and flesh but not the building itself?

“Boy,” Skidmark pointed, “Approach the stage!”

The ring flashed and disappeared.  The boy turned, as though in a daze.  He flinched as another burst of light sparked a good ten feet away.  He limped toward Skidmark and stared up at the Merchant’s leader.

“You’re gonna need a name, kid, if you’re going to join the Merchant’s upper circle.”

The boy blinked, looking around, as if he didn’t quite understand.  Was he in shock?

“Come on, now.  Let’s hurry it up.”

There was a spark of the boy’s power, and the flash removed a beachball-sized section of rubble beneath Skidmark’s ‘stage’.  The boy stared at it.

“E-Eraser?” he answered, making it a question.

“Like the puny pink nipple on the end of a pencil?  Fuck that,” Skidmark snarled.

“Um,” the boy drew out the noise, all too aware of his audience, probably unable to think straight.

“Scrub!” Skidmark shouted, and the crowd roared.

How in the hell was Scrub better than Eraser?  In what insane reality?

Skidmark waited until the noise of the crowd had died down before he raised the vial, “No point in you having a drink of this shit.  Wouldn’t do sweet fuck all.  Pick someone.”

The boy stared at Skidmark, processing the words.  He flinched as another flash occurred near him.  A hand clutching one elbow, he turned toward the crowd.  When he spoke, his voice was shaky, “R-Rick!  Doug!”

Two people emerged from the massed people who stood around where the audience had been.  One had blood running from his scalp to cover half his face, while the other was coughing violently, blood thick around his mouth and nose.

“Can…  Can I give it to both?  Can they share it?” the boy with the glowing hair asked.

Skidmark chuckled, and it was a nasty sound with very little humor to it.  “No, no.  You definitely don’t want to do that.  Pick one.”

“Doug.  Doug can have it.”

The boy who was coughing looked up, surprised.  The one with blood on his face, Rick, suddenly looked angry.  “What the fuck!?”

A flash of white high above and to the right of the boy with the powers made everyone nearby cringe.  It tore away a chunk of a metal beam that was helping to support the damaged roof.  People were giving a wider berth to the boy with the powers.  I suspected his abilities and his apparent lack of control were the only things keeping Rick from running up and punching him.

Was this division & the hard feelings on purpose?  If it was intentional, if Skidmark was dividing his allies from their former groups and cliques so they couldn’t gang up against him, I’d have to adjust my estimation of him.  Not that I’d like him any more, or even respect him, but I’d give him credit for intelligence.

“You didn’t help me when I got pulled into the ring,” the boy with the powers told Rick, “Doug at least tried.  He gets my prize.”

As Doug approached the stage, taking the long way to keep his distance from his newly empowered ‘friend’, I became aware that my bugs were dying on the roof, where I’d gathered a swarm in preparation during the chaos.  A patch here, a patch there.

No.  Not dying.  They were stunned, their senses obliterated by bursts of chaos and false sensations.  I had an idea of what it was.  I’d felt the same thing before.

I turned to Lisa.  Moving my left hand from the scratch on the back of my upper arm, I discreetly pointed up and murmured, “There’s company on the way.  We should go before there’s trouble.”

She looked up, then nodded assent.  Tapping Minor on the shoulder, she gave him a hand signal, and he notified the others.  We began moving.

The person on the roof was joined by others.  Some bugs died beneath their footfalls.  More bugs were stunned as the first individual crawled forward on all fours, around the lip of the roof and onto the ceiling of the mall, hanging off of it by his hands.  With the building largely unlit, I couldn’t make him out.

Newter was here, and the rest of Faultline’s crew.

We reached the first exit, and no sooner had we reached for the door than the handle disappeared.  The gaps separating the door from the wall filled in, as though wax matching the color of the door was dripping through the gaps.  There were similar things happening at the other entrances, I saw, the doors fading into the walls, becoming little more than discolored blotches.  Nobody else had seemed to notice, with their attention wholly focused on the woman who was making her way down from the stage with the vial for ‘Doug’.

When the fighting had started, Lisa had dissuaded me from using my power, out of a concern that the ensuing riot and chaos would get people hurt, and that the mob might start to hunt for strangers in their ranks.

I had no idea why they were here, but it seemed Faultline was about to crash the party in a far more direct way than we had.  We were about to see that bad scenario unfold, and our escape routes had vanished.

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Interlude 5

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“This what you wanted?” the teenager with scruff on his chin and his hood up handed over the paper bag.

Broad hands with ruined, rotten brown fingernails pawed through the contents, “It is.  Here.”  The voice was slightly accented, the words and sounds very careful, as though he were not comfortable with English.

The young man reached out and his eyes widened as a fold of bills was pressed into his hands.

“This is… more than I thought it would be.”

“Are you complaining?”

The young man shook his head.

Gregor the Snail put his hands in his pockets, as if to hide the fingernails and the growths that scabbed the backs of his hands.  Each of the hard growths, which might have been shell or scale, none any larger than a silver dollar, had a prominent spiral shape to it.  As much as he could tuck his hands into his pockets, he was unable to hide his face.  He had no hair on his head, not even eyebrows or eyelashes, and the hard growths crusted his face like a terminal case of acne.  Most strange and disconcerting of all was the fact that his pale skin was translucent enough that one could see shadows of his skeleton, his teeth and the tongue in his mouth.

“As you can see,” Gregor said, without any affectation, “It would be hard for me to walk into a store and make simple purchases.  I do not like to rely on my friends for this.  Makes me feel indebted to them, and this is not good for friendships.  If you are interested in repeating this sort of transaction, being on call to run errands for me for a time, it could be arranged.”

“Really?” the guy rubbed his chin, “For how long?”

“Until I called and you were unable or unwilling to run my errand.  If this happened more than once, or if the reason was not good, I would find someone else, as I did with the last individual.”

“You didn’t hurt him or anything?”

“No.  I did not.  He decided he would rather spend the evening with his girlfriend.  I have not called him again.”

“This won’t be anything illegal?”

“No.  No drugs, no prostitutes, no weapons.”

“So you call me, I run out and grab you groceries, or clothes, or take-out, or shampoo, or whatever, and you pay me three-”

“That is four.  And I do not have hair, so you would not need to concern yourself with shampoo.”

“Right.  Sorry.  So, four hundred dollars each time?  What’s the catch?”

“No catch.  I have money, I like things to be convenient.  Only one small chance of trouble.  My first assistant, she quit because she was concerned that my enemies would use her to get to me.  I will not deny this is possible.”

“You have enemies?”

“Yes.  But there has not been a case yet where any of my assistants ran into trouble with them.”

“Have any of them run into trouble at all?”

“The last assistant, the boy with the girlfriend.  He thought he could get more money, because he could go to the police and tell them what he knew about me.  He was lucky to try this when I was in a generous mood.  I dissuaded him.  He worked for me for two months after that with no complaint.  We were not friendly, it was pure business.  I would recommend, gently, that you not try the same thing.”

“Hey.  Live and let live, right?”

“That is a good saying.”

“Okay.  I’m wanting to go to college this fall, and this is sounding a hell of a lot better than working minimum wage for fifty hours a week.  Here, my cell phone number,” he handed over his phone.

Gregor the Snail took a second to put the number in his own phone.  “I have it.  I will call.”

They parted ways.

Gregor walked down the side streets of downtown Brockton Bay with the hood of his sweatshirt casting his face in shadow.  Anyone who happened to cross his path and look beneath his hood were quick to glance away.  Embarrassed, spooked.  Those that saw him from a distance knew him as monstrous as well, but in a different way.  To them, he was simply one of the morbidly obese.  A man in his late twenties or early thirties, nearly three times the weight he should be for his five feet and ten inches of height.  His weight, he knew, was one of the rare things in this modern world that someone could use to mock him openly.

It had taken him years to come to peace with this.  With being one of the monsters.

As he came to his destination, the throbbing pulse of music reached his ears.  The club sat two blocks away from Lord Street, and there was a line extending around the side of the building.  Glowing yellow letters in an almost intentionally plain script spelled out ‘Palanquin’.

He skipped the line and headed straight for the front door.  A burly Hispanic doorman with a beard tracing the edges of his jaw undid the chain fence to let him through.

“What the hell?” one of the girls near the front of the line complained, “We’ve been waiting for forty five minutes and you let that fat fuck through like that?”

“Out of the line,” the doorman said, his voice bored.

“The hell?  Why?”

“You just dissed the owner’s brother, fuckwit,” the doorman told her, “Out of the line.  You and your friends are banned.”

Gregor smiled and shook his head.  The line the doorman had pulled was bullshit, of course, he wasn’t the owner’s brother.  But it was nice to see one of the assholes getting what was coming to them.

He had worked as a bouncer for clubs that wanted someone more exotic and attention-getting, way back when he was first getting on his feet, so he knew that the line you saw out the door was rarely an indication of how many people were inside.  An empty club could have a line of people waiting to get in, to give the right image.  Even though it was a Tuesday night, Palanquin had no such need for such deceptions.  It bustled with people.  Gregor carefully navigated the crowd of dancers and people holding drinks, until he reached a stairwell guarded by a bouncer.  As with the front door, his admittance to the stairs was automatic, unquestioned.

The upstairs balcony wasn’t filled with people, and those that were present, a dozen or so, were almost boneless in their lethargy.  Mostly girls, they lay prone on couches and in booths throughout the balcony that overlooked the dance floor.  Only three people were more or less alert as Gregor approached.

“Gregor, my boy!” Newter grinned from ear to ear.  Gregor caught the briefest flash of disgust on the face of one of the girls sitting with Newter, as she looked at him.  She was a blonde with blue lipstick and pink highlights in her hair.  Had Gregor been working as the doorman, he would have checked her ID, double checked it, then even if it did look real, he would have kicked her out anyways for being too young.  She couldn’t have been older than sixteen.

Still, that was roughly how old Newter was, and he could hardly fault the boy for being interested in someone his own age.

The other girl, dark haired, had a European cast to her features.  She showed no such distaste.  When she smiled up at him, there was no sign the expression was forced.  That was both rare and interesting.

“I brought your dinner,” Gregor said.

“Good man!  Pull up a chair!”

“The others will want their food as well.”

“Pull up a chair, come on.  I’ve got two stunning girls here, and they’re not believing me when I’m telling them about some of the cooler jobs we’ve pulled.  I need backup here, bro.”

“I do not think it is a good idea to be talking about these things,” Gregor said.  He stayed standing.

Newter reached for the bag and grabbed a sandwich from inside.  “It’s cool.  Faultline joined the conversation a while ago, so she’s obviously okay with it.  You aren’t going to tell, right, Laura?  Mary?”

Each girl shook her head as Newter asked them by name.  That let Gregor label the dark haired girl as Laura and the girl with the blue lipstick as Mary.

“If Faultline said it was fine.” Gregor said.  He took the bag back from Newter and found his own sandwich.  “Laura and Mary, I am sorry, the other sandwiches I have here are spoken for.  I could offer you some of my own, if you would like.”

“That’s okay, I’m not hungry,” Laura replied, “I like your accent.  Is it Norwegian?”

Gregor finished his first bite, swallowed, and shook his head, “I am not sure.   But I have spoken to an expert and he says the other language I speak is Icelandic.”

“You don’t know?”

“No,” Gregor replied.

His brusque answer only stalled the conversation for a moment before Newter got it going again, “Okay, bro, tell these girls who we went up against last month.”

“The toybox job?” Gregor asked, “With the Tinker black market?  There was nobody-”

“The other one.  The job in Philadelphia.”

“Ah.  Chevalier and Myrddin.”

Newter clapped his hands together, rocking back in his seat, “Told you!”

“And you beat them,” the dark haired girl said, disbelieving.

“We didn’t lose!” Newter crowed.

“It was a close call,” Gregor added his own two cents.  “Chevalier is leader of Protectorate in Philadelphia.  Myrddin leads Protectorate of Chicago.  These are people whole world recognizes.  They got positions protecting big cities in America because they are strong, because they are smart and talented.  We got the job done, as we always do, and we walked away.”

Newter laughed, “Pay up.”

Neither Laura nor Mary looked bothered as they reached into their pocket and purse, respectively, and fished out some bills.

“What was the bet?”  Gregor asked.

“I told them they didn’t have to pay if I was lying.”

“And if you weren’t lying?  They pay more?”

“No penalty.  I got company and conversation for a while,” Newter smiled.  He reached up to the back of the booth, grabbed a bag that sat there, and fished out a pair of plastic spoons and a bottle of water.  With a water dropper he retrieved from his pocket, he siphoned water from the bottle and placed a few drops in each spoon.  The final step was dipping the tip of his tongue in each drop of water.

“Lick it up,” he told the girls.

“That’s all?”  Laura asked him.

“It’s enough.  Any more and you might be out for an inconveniently long time.  That right there,” Newter pointed to the spoon with the tip of his tail, “Is a little less than an hour of psychadelic tripping.  No hangover, no side effects, it’s not addictive, and you can’t overdose on it.  Trust me, I’ve tried to make someone overdose before, combat situation, and I couldn’t make it happen.”

Mary was the first to take the spoon and pop it into her mouth.  Moments later, her eyes went wide, and she fell limp against the back of the booth.

“Hey,” Laura said, turning to Gregor.  She reached into her pocket, found a receipt and a pen, and scribbled on the blank backside of the paper.  She handed it to him.  “My number.  If you want to talk, or, you know, something else.”

She winked at him, then popped the spoon into her mouth.

Gregor blinked in a mild confusion as her head lolled back.

“Looks like you made a good impression, Gregster,” Newter chuckled.

“Maybe,” Gregor said.  He put the half of his sandwich that remained back in the paper bag, then balled up the wrapper.  After a moment’s hesitation, he crumpled the receipt with Laura’s number into the ball.  He pitched it to a trash can halfway across the room.

“Hey!  What gives?”

“I do not think she liked me because I am me,” Gregor said, “I think she liked me because I am a monster.”

“I think you’re sabotaging yourself, man.  She’s hot.  Look at her.”

Gregor did.  She was attractive.  He sighed.

“Newter, do you know what a devotee is?”

Newter shook his head.

“It is a slang term for someone who is attracted to people with disabilities, because of the disability.  I think it is about power, attraction to someone because they are weak somehow.  I think it likely that this Laura sees me as weak because of the way I look, the way I may have trouble day to day, and this is compelling to her in a similar way to how a cripple or a blind man might be to a devotee.  This does not appeal to me.”

“No way.  Maybe she likes you because of the person underneath.”

“She did not see enough of me to know who that person might be,” Gregor replied.

“I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.  I’d jump on that opportunity.”

“You are a stronger person than I in many ways, Newter.  I should bring the others their dinner,” Gregor turned to leave.

“Hey, signal Pierce downstairs to send another girl or two up, will ya?”

Gregor did as he was asked, getting the attention of the bouncer at the foot of the stairs.  The bouncer, in turn, got the attention of a set of girls on the dance floor.

While the girls made their way up, Gregor turned to Newter, “Are you happy?”

“Oh man.  You’re not going into a philosophical phase again, are you?”

“I will spare you that.  Are you?”

“Dude.  Look at me.  I have money to burn, I’ve got the hottest girls in the city begging to get a taste of me.  Literally wanting to taste me!  What do you think?”

“You are happy, then?”

“Time of my life, bro.”  Newter opened his arms wide to greet a trio of girls as they reached the top of the stairs.

“I am glad.”  Gregor turned and entered the hallway at the back of the balcony.  As the door sealed shut behind him, the pounding of the music behind him dimmed.

His next stop was the first door on his left.  He knocked.

“Come in.”

The bedroom had a bed on each side, in opposite corners.  One side of the room was cluttered with posters, pictures, a bookshelf overflowing with books, an Apple computer with two CD racks towering above it, and two speaker systems.  The music from the computer speakers only barely managed to drown out the music from the club downstairs.  The girl who was lying back on the bed had a dense covering of freckles on her face and hands, and curly brown hair.  Magazines were piled in stacks around her on the bed, threatening to topple over at the slightest movement.

The other side of the room was spartan.  Nothing adorned the walls, there were no books, no computer or computer paraphernalia.  There was a bed, a bedside table and a dresser.  The only character whatsoever was a colorful bedspread and pillowcase.  Gregor knew it had been a gift from Faultline.  The owner wouldn’t have gone out to get it herself.  The resident of that side of the room was seated in the corner, staring into the wall.  She was blonde, the sort of platinum white-blond hair that rarely lasted through puberty.  Her royal purple sweater was slightly too large for her, drooping over her hands, and her pale jeans were clearly intended to be more comfortable than fashionable.

“I brought your dinner, Emily.”

“Thanks,” the freckled girl answered him.  She caught the sandwich he threw to her and began to peel open the package.

“Is she okay?” he asked, gesturing to the girl in the corner.

“Not one of her better days.”

He nodded.

“Elle,” he spoke, gently, “May I come closer?”

They had learned the hard way, that the more distant the girl was, the stronger her power.  This made her particularly dangerous when she was so lost that she might not recognize him.  Cruel irony, Gregor observed, that she had virtually no power at all when she was most herself.  It was a problem they hoped to find an answer to, someday.

The girl in the corner turned to meet his eyes.  He took that for consent, approached her, and pressed a sandwich into her hands.

“Eat,” he instructed her.

She did, almost mechanical in her movements.

After Faultline had enlisted him and Newter, a job had taken them into a high security asylum.  They had been there to question someone about the Dragonslayers, a villain group that used tinker technology stolen from the most powerful and highest profile tinker in the world for petty theft and mercenary work.  Their invasion of the asylum had not gone as well as it might have, and had led to a high-tech lockdown of the facility.  Not only did it extend their mission by several hours, but it had led to issues with one of the residents, a parahuman that apparently had to be moved regularly, lest her influence over her surroundings spread beyond the confines of her cell, making her a serious problem for the staff, other residents and unwitting bystanders.

In the end, after dealing with the dispatched squad from the Boston Protectorate and getting the information they needed about the Dragonslayers, they had recruited the girl.

He watched and waited long enough to ensure she was on her way to finishing her sandwich, then turned to leave.  Emily gave him a small wave of the hand in goodbye, and he nodded once in acknowledgment.

His final stop was the office at the end of the second floor hallway.  He peered in the window, then let himself in as quietly as he could.

Faultline, owner of Palanquin and several other cover businesses across Brockton Bay, was seated at a large oak desk.  In front of her, in the midst of ledgers, notebooks and university textbooks, was something that looked similar to a xylophone, a series of rods lined up next to one another, strapped tight to a board.

Faultline was in her professional clothes; a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black slacks tucked into shiny black riding boots with steel toes.  Her wavy black hair was tied back in a ponytail.  She wore no mask – those employees of Palanquin who ventured as far as this office were too well paid to turn on her.  Her features were perhaps too sharp to be called conventionally attractive, but Gregor knew she was certainly more attractive than Newter or himself.

As Gregor watched, she closed her eyes, then swiped her hand across the top ends of the rods.  Red and blue energy crackled, and coin-shaped pieces of wood, metal, stone and plastic fell to the desktop.  Other rods, several of which were green wood, were untouched.

“Fuck,” she muttered.  She swept the coin shaped bits of various materials into a trash can that sat beside her desk.  Glancing up at where Gregor stood just inside the doorway, she raised one eyebrow.

“I did not wish to interrupt you.”

“Don’t worry about it.  Maybe distracting me will help.”

“If you are sure.”  He approached the desk, setting the paper bag down on it, “It was seven o’clock, nobody had eaten yet.  I got us some sandwiches.”

“Thank you.  How’s Elle?”

“Spitfire said she was having a bad day, but she has eaten now.  Perhaps tomorrow will be better.”

Faultline sighed, “Let’s hope.  It’s very easy to let yourself grow attached to that girl, know what I mean?”

“Yes.”

“Fuck!” she swore, as she swiped her hand over the rods and, again, the green wood refused to be cut.

“What are you doing?”

“We’ve talked about the Manton effect.”

“The rule that prevents some powers from affecting living things.  You have been trying to remove such restrictions from yourself.”

“Without luck.  It’s a matter of time before we’re on a job, things come down to the wire, and I’m too weak, because of this arbitrary limitation.”

“I find it hard to believe that anyone who has toppled a building on someone could call themselves weak.”

“That was luck more than anything else,” she sighed, as she adjusted the positions of the rods.

“If you say so.”

“It’s not like there isn’t precedent for this.  We know for a fact that some capes who were once held back by the Manton effect have figured out a way around it, or past it.  Narwhal being the most obvious case.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a school of theory that says that the Manton effect is a psychological block.  That, because of our empathy for living things, we hold back our powers on an instinctual level.  Or, maybe, we hold back against other living things because there is a subconsciously imposed limitation that prevents us from hurting ourselves with our own powers, and it’s too general, encompassing other living things instead of only ourselves.”

“I see.”

“So I’m trying to trick my brain.  With this setup, I move from inorganic material to dead organic material to living tissues.  Green wood, in this case.  Or I mix it up so it goes from one to the other without any pattern.  If I can trick my brain into slipping up, anticipating the wrong material, maybe I can push through that mental block.  Do that once, and it’d be easier for future tries.  That’s the theory, anyways.”

She tried again.  “Fuck!”

“It does not seem to be working.”

“No kidding.  Do me a favor.  Rearrange these.  Don’t let me see them.”

He approached the desk, unstrapped the rods, shuffled them, and then strapped them in place while she sat there with her eyes closed.

“Go,” he told her.

She tried again, eyes still closed.  When she opened them, she cussed a few times in a row.

Gregor stepped around the desk, grabbed her by the throat with his left hand, and pulled her out of the chair.  He shoved her to the ground and climbed atop of her so he was straddling her, his knees pressing her arms down.  His grip tightened incrementally.

Faultline’s eyes widened and her face began to turn colors as she struggled.  She brought her knees up into his back, but one might have had more success hitting a waterbed.  The effect was the same.  Beneath his skin, which was tougher than one might guess, his skeleton, muscles and organs all sat in a sea of viscous fluids.  His skeleton, he’d learned, was more like a shark’s than a human’s.  It was a flexible cartilage that bent where bone would break, and healed faster than bone.  He’d been hit by a car and climbed to his feet shortly after.  Her kicks would not have much effect.

“I am sorry,” he told her.

Her struggles gradually became weaker.  It took some time before she started to go limp.

He waited a second longer, then released her.  She sputtered into a cough as she heaved air into her lungs.

He waited patiently for her to recover.  When she looked more or less in control of her own breathing, he spoke, “Months ago, we were talking about this subject, the Manton effect.  You mentioned how it might be possible for someone like us to have a second trigger event.  A radical change or improvement in their powers as a result of a life or death moment.  Such might explain how one broke the Manton rule.”

She nodded, coughing again.

“It would not have worked if I had warned you in advance.  I am sorry.”

She shook her head, coughed once, then answered him, her voice hoarse, “It didn’t work anyways.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What if it had worked, you big lunatic?  What did you expect me to do to you?  Cut off your hand?  Kill you?”

“I thought perhaps my hand or my arm, at worst.  I do not think you would kill me, even in a moment such as that.  You have done much for me.  Even if it proved impossible to reattach, I would not say it is a very attractive hand,” he examined the hand he’d just used to strangle Faultline, “To lose it, for something you have been working on for a long time is not a regrettable thing.”

“Idiot,” she pulled herself to her feet, coughing again, “How the hell am I supposed to get pissed at you when you say something like that?”

He stayed silent.

“Well, either that’s not going to work, or I need something that gets me even closer to death… in which case I’m scratching it off the list anyways.” She moved her chair and sat down at her desk, shoving the apparatus with the rods into the trash.  “I like being alive too much to dance on that razor’s edge.”

“Yes,” his voice was quiet.

“Thank you, by the way, for trying that” she told him, as she emptied the bag of one and a half sandwiches.  She returned Gregor’s half-sandwich to the bag and put hers aside, unopened.  “I don’t expect it was easy.”

He shook his head.

“So, returning a favor, then.  Sit down.”

He pulled a chair over and sat on the other side of the desk.

“A year ago, you agreed to give me a share of your earnings in our little group, if I put them towards answering some questions we had.”

“I remember.”

“I’ll talk to the others about this, soon, but since you were the one that paid the most, I thought it only right that I share with you first.”  She opened a drawer and retrieved a file.  She pushed it across the desk.  “This is what I’ve found, so far.”

He opened the file.  The first page was an image, high resolution, of a stylized ‘u’, or a ‘c’ turned ninety-degrees counter clockwise.  He touched his upper arm, where a tattoo identical to the image marked him.

“Whoever it is,” Faultline explained, “Whether it’s one person or many, is very, very good at covering their tracks.”

He turned the pages.  The next set of pages were pictures, crime scene reports, official files and news articles about various parahumans, each set of pages relating to a specific one.  The first was a monster of a man with a beetle-like shell covering his body.  Gregor himself was the second.

“You and Newter, you already know, aren’t alone.  On a steady basis, parahumans have been turning up across North America.  Retrograde amnesia, all marked by that same tattoo as you are on various parts of their body.  Each was dumped in an out of the way location in an urban area.  Alleys, ditches, rooftops, under bridges.”

“Yes.”  Gregor turned more pages.  Each set of pages had more individuals like him.

“Here’s the thing, though.  At first, most were strange in appearance.  As many as four out of five monstrous parahumans, if you’ll excuse the term, follow the pattern, and that number might increase if you got a chance to examine or get a decent interview with the others.  The tattoo, amnesia, their first memories are waking up somewhere in a strange city.”

“At first, you said?” Gregor asked, “This changed?”

“Turn to the red tab.”

He found the red tab that stuck out and turned to that page.  A high quality picture of an attractive redheaded girl.

“She showed up in Vegas.  The whole casino thing has bitten the dust, pretty much, since parahumans who could game the odds or cheat started showing up.  But there’s underground games, still.  She participated in a few, and had a bounty on her head in a matter of days.  She’s calling herself Shamrock, and I’d put good money on the fact that she’s got powers that let her manipulate probabilities.”

“I see.  Why are we talking about her?”

“Next page.”

He turned the page.  “Ah.”

It was a grainy surveillance camera image.  Shamrock was in the midst of changing clothes in what looked like an underground parking lot, and, though partially obscured by her bra strap, the tattoo was visible on her shoulderblade.  A stylized ‘u’.

“That’s puzzle piece number one.  Given the dates, and you’re free to look them over in your own time, going by the first sightings, the people that are showing up with these tattoos are getting less and less monstrous with each passing year.  Not always, but it’s a trend.  Then, boom, we get Shamrock.  No strange features to speak of.”

He turned ahead a few pages.

“Puzzle piece number two.  I’m afraid it’s one of those cases where things have been covered up too well for us to verify, but I’ll tell you what I heard.  Tallahassee, Florida, just three months ago, a rumor circulated about someone calling themselves the Dealer.”

“What was he dealing?”

“Powers.”

“Powers,” Gregor echoed her.

“Pay him an amount in the neighborhood of thirty five thousand dollars, the Dealer gives you something to drink, and you join the ranks of the heroes and villains in the cape community.  Powers in a bottle.”

“I see.  How does this relate?”

“Because one individual claiming to be a customer made a blog post about his transaction.  It’s near the end of that file.  In his post, he described the Dealer as having a metal suitcase filled with vials. Engraved on the inside of the lid…”

“The same symbol as the tattoo,” Gregor guessed.

Faultline nodded, “And that’s where we stand.”

“I see.  Can we track down this individual with the blog?”

“He’s dead.  Murdered by two unnamed capes less than a day after he made the post.”

“Ah.”

“What I think is that someone out there has figured out how people get powers, and they’ve made a business out of it.  But the first attempts didn’t go so well.  It could be that, if the chemistry is bad, the people who drink the stuff become like you, like Newter, like Sybill and Scarab.”

“So this person, or people.  You think they are experimenting.  They have been refining their work, and the physical changes have become smaller.”

“And this Dealer was either their salesman, or more likely, someone who stole some of their work and tried to profit from it.  The people he dealt to didn’t get the tattoos.”

Gregor’s chair groaned painfully as he leaned back.

“What is next?”

“No one’s seen or heard of this Dealer since the blog poster was murdered.  The Dealer’s either dead or gone to ground.  So we follow our other lead.  I’ve got private investigators looking for Shamrock.  I’m thinking we wrap up our contract with Coil, here, then, if we’re lucky enough that our PIs find her before the bounty hunters do, we pay her a visit. Either she can tell us something, or we can offer her a position on the team.”

“Or both,” he said.

“In an ideal world,” Faultline smiled.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Hive 5.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Brockton Bay 911, what is your emergency?”

“Multiple injured,” I said, glancing at the nearest street sign, “Warehouse at Whitemore and Sunset.  Send police and capes, too.  These guys are ABB members.”

There was the briefest of pauses, “That’s Whitemore and Sunset?”

“Whitemore and Sunset, yes.  Listen, the leader of the ABB, a parahuman by the name of Lung, is incapacitated at the scene, but that won’t be entirely true for long.  He’s drugged and blinded, but the drugs will be out of his system before too long.”

“You’re a cape?” she asked, “Can I get your identification?”

“I repeat,” I ignored her, “He’s drugged and blinded, but only the blindness will be a factor when the first responders arrive on the scene.  Warn them to be careful.  You can also tell them that a second parahuman calling himself Oni Lee was present but fled after being injured.  He may still be in the area.”

“I understand.  The Protectorate will be informed before they arrive on scene.  I’ve got ambulances, police and PRT teams on their way.  Can I please get your identification?”

I hung up.

“I can’t believe you carved out his eyes,” Sundancer said.  We were walking briskly back to where we’d left Labyrinth.

“He’ll heal,” I pointed out, “Eventually.”

“You blinded someone who was helpless to fight back.  That’s kind of fucked up.”

I couldn’t say much to that.  Fucked up or not, it had been necessary.  I couldn’t have dealt with it if I’d known we left him there and he got back to business as usual by the end of the day.  I’d stopped him, best as I was able.

Okay, alright, I was willing to admit that maybe the means were a little suspect.  I’d fought alongside some fucked up people, I’d maimed him.  By letting Fenja, Menja and Kaiser go I’d sort of condoned what they’d done to Lung’s men.  But in the end, it was what I’d wanted to do when I’d wanted to be a superhero.  I’d taken down a horrible person.

I just hoped the heroes could clean up the mess and get Lung behind bars for good this time.

“Hey Bitch,” I said, “Why’d you come back?”  I couldn’t phrase it better without offending her, but I wanted to know was why she’d come back when she was supposed to be taking Newter and Coil’s soldier to a doctor.

Bitch was sitting tall astride Brutus.  She seemed to get my meaning, “The other soldier said he was a trained medic.  Told me he could handle it, so I came back to fight.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Got it.”

Bitch hadn’t been lying, I saw, as we approached the rest of our group.  Newter was bandaged and awake, while the other soldier was lying down, unconscious.  Maybe drugged for the pain.

“You made it,” Newter grinned.

“Barely,” I admitted, “You okay?”

“I’m tougher than I look,” he responded, “Benefit of my, um, unique biology.”

“Cool,” I replied, feeling lame for not having a better reply, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like it was trying too hard or, worse, sound sarcastic.

“This fella says you guys probably saved my life,” Newter jerked a thumb toward the one of Coil’s guys that was awake.

“Honest, I’m having a hard time believing you’re up and talking right now,” the medic replied.

“Anyways, thanks,” Newter said, eyes moving from me to Sundancer to Bitch and back again.

“No problem,” I answered him, feeling lame for not having a better or more suitable reply.  Embarrased, I looked for a reason to change the subject.  “Look, we should get out of here in the next few minutes.  Capes, cops and ambulances are on their way to deal with the aftermath.”

“Alright,” Newter said, “But I have to ask… a small army of roaches dropped those off?”

He was smiling as he pointed to a spot near where he was lying.  A stack of paper bags were organized in a pile.

“I forgot I did that,” I admitted, “It didn’t feel right to leave the ABB’s money behind if we wound up retreating, so I had my bugs haul it out of there.  Everyone might as well take a bag.”

“We can take it?” Newter asked, “You sure?”

I shrugged in response.  The money didn’t matter much to me.  “Consider it a bonus, a thanks for helping.  It’s, um, not exactly divided to be fair, so no insult intended if any of them end up being a bag full of ones.”

“No complaints,” Newter said.  He reached out with his tail and used it encircle and pick up a bag.  Coil’s guy gave him a hand in standing up, and you could see him wince and huff out a breath at the effort.  He swayed a bit on his feet, then put a hand on Labyrinth’s shoulder to steady himself.  Sundancer grabbed a bag, and Coil’s medic/spotter grabbed two.

Labyrinth didn’t reach for one, so I walked over, grabbed one, and held it out for her.  She didn’t respond.

“I’ll hold that for her,” Newter offered.

“Is she okay?”

“She’s… pretty much normal.  For her, anyways.”

He claimed the bag, leaving three for Bitch and I, but nobody was complaining or pointing that out.

“You guys need a ride?” I asked.

Newter shook his head, then pointed to a manhole cover a ways down the road, “We’ll head back to one of our hideouts through there.  Familiar territory for me.”

“Is that a good idea, with your injury?  I mean, stating the obvious, but it’s gonna be pretty gross down there.”

He smiled, “Can’t get an infection.  My biology’s toxic to the bacteria and parasites, I think.  Never been sick, that I can remember.”

Of course.  Now I felt dumb for making Sundancer use the alcohol to sterilize him, and for going the extra mile with the sanitary pads, to ensure what I was using was clean.

“And you guys?” I asked Coil’s guy, “Ride?”

“We’ve got one, but thanks.”  The medic bent down, bound his buddy’s wrists, and then pulled the loop of arms over his head, so he was effectively giving his buddy a piggyback.  He took another second to arrange his guns, then headed through the same alley that Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had gone through before the fight started.

Sundancer was going the opposite way, so she said a brief goodbye and left.  Newter and Labyrinth were walking in the same direction as Bitch and I, so we walked together.

Labyrinth walked like she was in a daze, with Newter leading her along by the hand like she was a child.  It was interesting, not just to see that kind of interaction between them, but noting that her gloves looked like cloth, and that he was probably risking drugging her… unless she was immune.  A consequence of her ability?  He caught me looking, smiled and shrugged.

“Autistic?” I guessed.

He shook his head, “No, though we thought that, at first.  Seems she was a normal kid until her powers showed up.  Since then, she’s been off in her own little world, more or less.  A little worse right now, I think, after seeing me hurt.”

“That happens?” I asked, gesturing towards my head, unable to come up with an inoffensive and simple way of phrasing it.

He shrugged, “Sometimes getting powers fucks up your body,” he gestured to himself using his tail, which was still holding the paper bags, “Sometimes it fucks up your head.  Bad luck, but you deal with the cards you’re dealt.”

“Oh,” I replied.  I wasn’t sure how to respond.  A cold, quiet horror crept up on me.  My powers had something to do with my brain.  I could remember how crazy I’d felt right after my powers showed up, that torrent of nightmare images, signals and details from my bugs.  I still had bad dreams about it.  How close had I come to being like that permanently?

He grinned, “It’s cool.  She’s really fond of us, and we’re attached to her, too.  She has her lucid moments, when she’s let us know she’s cool with the status quo.  Sure, she has bad days when she’s dead to the world, but all of our powers have drawbacks, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I echoed him, though I couldn’t think of a drawback to my power that even came close.

“I think we’re okay where we’re at.  Eh, L?  You’ve been happy since we got you out of that place?”

Labyrinth kind of stirred from her daze and looked at him.

“Yeah,” Newter grinned, ” You can tell because the stuff she does with her power is prettier, these days.”  He gestured at the manhole cover, “This is where we part ways.”

Labyrinth glanced down where he was pointing.  A moment later, a tracery of silvery lines spiderwebbed out around the manhole cover, extending and forking like veins.  As the lines met and sectioned off parts of the road, those bits of road lifted and flipped over, revealing a white marble texture on their undersides.  When sufficiently surrounded by the expanse of cracked white marble, the manhole flipped over, revealing a silvery underside, and then popped open on an unseen hinge.  A spiral stairway of more marble or ivory led down into the depths.  The white walls had a faint glow to them.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Newter replied.  When he stepped down onto the stair, it was solid under his foot. He held up the paper bags as he said, “Thanks guys.”

“Sure thing,” I replied.  “Later.”

The manhole shut behind them, and almost immediately, the white around the manhole began to fade.

I looked up at Bitch where she sat on one-eyed Brutus.  Angelica and a still-dusty Judas stood just behind her.  She offered me a hand up onto Brutus’ back.

There were a lot of drawbacks to having a mask or helmet that didn’t cover my entire head.  If I’d sat myself down and put in the extra hours to finish my mask and expand the armored sections, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten that concussion that was proving to be such a pain in my ass.

The upside, though, was that it felt awesome to have the wind blowing in my hair as we rode down the empty streets.  The perfect wind-down from that crazy adrenaline rush that had come with going up against Oni Lee and Lung within minutes of each other.  I closed my eyes and let the tension flow out of me.

We rode like that for a few minutes.  Bitch took turns and moved sorta aimlessly as she headed East, towards the water and the beaches.  Maybe she was taking evasive action in case we were being followed, maybe she just wanted to ride.  I didn’t really care.

I was a little disoriented when we finally stopped.  Brutus padded through sand as he stepped down onto the beach.  Bitch hopped down, and I followed her cue.

It was still early afternoon, so the beach was deserted, and it wasn’t the sort of beach that saw much tourist use anyways.  A concrete wall separated the beach from the roadside above us, and a yawning hole with the rusty remains of what had once been a grate marked the exit of the various storm drains beneath the Docks.  Trash, rotted leaves and one or two needles had filtered down to the sand below the drain.

“Go home,” Bitch ordered the dogs.  One by one, they filed into the drain.  I guessed they would let the transformation subside before they returned to the loft on their own.

Then Bitch pulled off her mask.  She gave me a derisive look.

“What?”

“You gonna change?  Can’t walk back like that.”

“I don’t have a change of clothes with me.  Or stashed anywhere.”

“Well.  That’s fucking stupid,” she answered me.

“I wasn’t thinking ahead when I decided to go.  Sue me,” I challenged her.

“What’re you wearing under that?”

“Tank top and stretch shorts.”

She looked around.  “It’s not that cold.”

I sighed and unstrapped my armor enough to unzip my costume at the back.  I pulled it off – far easier than putting it on – and bundled it up so all the identifiable parts of the mask and armor were hidden by fabric.  The sand was damp and clammy under my bare feet.

When Bitch reached for my face, I startled.  She put one hand on the side of my face, and for just a fraction of a second, I thought something incredibly awkward was about to happen.

Then she wrenched my head to enough of a tilt that it was almost horizontal.

“You look like someone tried to hang you.”

“What?” I asked.

She touched the side of my neck, but it wasn’t possible to see that part of myself without a mirror.  I did realize what she was talking about, after a moment’s thought.  I pulled up the side of my tank top, and sure enough, there was a red-black bruise at my stomach and waist.  Hiking up my top a bit more, I found another at my ribs.  I knew there would be another up near my armpit, and one encircling my neck.

I had a giant fucking handprint on my body, courtesy of Lung.

I let out a long groan, touching my neck where I felt tender.  “No way I can hide this from my dad.”

My good mood was dashed to the winds as we started trudging back to the Loft.  It was made all the more unpleasant because I was underdressed and barefoot, and the ground was cold under my feet.

I shivered and hugged my arms to my body as best as I could while still keeping my costume bundled up and the paper bags of money in hand.

Something warm settled over my shoulders.  I looked at Bitch as she finished draping her jacket over me.  As she drew back, her eyebrows furrowed, glaring at me, I wrangled the bags and my bundle of costume so I could get my arms through the sleeves and do up the buttons.  It was a canvas down jacket with a fur-ruff collar, but it was the wrong size for me and it was heavy.  The pockets, I found, as I tried to jam my hands in there, were filled with stuff.  A mess of plastic bags, chocolate bars, protein bars, a juice box, pellets that ground together – what I guessed were dog treats or dog food.  Not exactly cape supplies.  All in all, it was almost uncomfortable.

But it was warm.

“Thank you,” I told her, floored by the gesture.

“You needed something to cover your neck,” she looked bothered, “People would stare.”

“Doesn’t matter.  Thank you.”  I offered a smile.

“You already said that,” she switched from looking bothered to looking angry, “It’s mine, I can take it back.”

“Of course,” I said.  Then to be safe, I offered, “Do you want to?”

She didn’t reply, leaving me absolutely baffled.  Why was it that when I thanked someone like my dad for giving me a gift, it felt like it sounded sarcastic or lame no matter how I tried to say it, but the one damn time I was ninety-five percent sure I sounded as sincere as I felt, it was with Bitch, and she didn’t buy it?

Worried anything I could say would rub her the wrong way, I defaulted to silence, as I found myself doing more and more often with her.  It wasn’t a short trip, and my feet still felt the heat leeching out of them as I took each step on the pavement, but the core of my body was warm, and that was enough to keep me going.  Like that, we made our way back to the loft.

She unlocked the door and let us in.  I shouted up for Brian and Lisa, but no voices greeted me in return.  The others weren’t back yet, which made sense, since Grue would have to pick up Tattletale and Regent before they got back, and it hadn’t sounded like Tattletale’s team was close to wrapping things up when I’d called.  Bitch led the way up to the Loft, and the second I was up there, I took off the jacket and wordlessly handed it to her.  She was still glaring at me.

What could I do, what could I say?  It seemed like everything I did pissed her off, sent the wrong signal.

I returned to my room in the Loft and dug through the shopping bags I still had in there, finding a loose pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt to pull over my top.  No clean socks, sadly, but there were some covers laid out on the bed.  I grabbed some and dragged them behind me to the living room, where Bitch was watching TV.  She gave me the evil eye, but didn’t complain, as I got myself bundled up in the covers on the other couch.

She had the remote, and I was willing to let her have it.  She channel surfed relentlessly, settling on an action movie for five minutes, then started surfing again when the ads started, and didn’t go back to it.

It wasn’t too interesting to watch, but I didn’t mind.  I lay back, thinking back to the events of the day, the conversations, the tidbits of info.

I almost dozed off, when my lazy train of thought stumbled onto something that I was afraid I’d forget if I let myself go the rest of the way to sleep.  I forced myself to open my eyes and sat up a bit.

“Bitch?” I risked drawing her attention, hoping she’d calmed down a bit.  She looked at me.

“Um.  When we were talking, a little bit ago, I thanked you.  Did that sound sarcastic to you, or what?”

“You’re getting on my case again?”

“No,” I raised my hands to stop her, “Not what I was trying to do.  I’m just wondering.”

“Keep your wondering to yourself,” she snapped.  When she turned her attention back to the TV, her channel surfing was cranked up a notch.

“I’ll pay you to answer me,” I tried.

She looked at me.

“That money we grabbed.  You can keep all of it.”

Her eyes narrowed, “We’re supposed to split our take five ways.”

“We earned that, right?  The both of us?  I won’t tell the others if you don’t. And I’m saying you can have it all.  Not sure how much it is, but it’d be yours.”

“Is this a trick?”

“No trick.  Just answer my question.  You can even tell me to get lost after, I’ll go to my room and grab a nap or something.”

She leaned back, and put the hand with the remote in her lap, glaring at me.  I took that for consent.

“So, what I was asking before, when I said thanks, did you think I was sarcastic, did you think I was genuine, what?”

“Dunno.”

“You mean you didn’t know, or you can’t remember, or-”

“I said dunno.”

“Fine,” I sighed, “Whatever.  Money’s yours.”

“That easy?”

I shrugged.

“You said you’d get lost if I asked,” she pointed out.

I nodded, gathered the covers and retreated to my room.

I didn’t nap, though.  Instead, I stared up at the iron girders that framed the ceiling, deep in thought, thinking about the conversation with Newter about Labyrinth.

I was still sorting through my thoughts when the rest of the gang returned.

I ventured out of the room, still bundled in a blanket, to greet them.  Brian gave me a winning smile as he pulled off his helmet, and I got some attention for having the most noteworthy injury of the afternoon.

As Alec, Brian and Bitch started talking about their individual adventures, Lisa pulled me aside.  We wound up walking to the kitchen.  Lisa put a kettle on as she asked me, “You okay?”

“Not really hurt, ugly as this looks, and I think I’m feeling better about the school thing.”

“But you’re distracted by something.”

“I was talking to Newter.  You know Labyrinth’s kind of out of it, because of her power, right?”

“You want to know if there’s anything wrong with you, that you don’t know about?”

“No,” I shook my head, “Wait, is there?”

“Nah.  So what’s up?”

“Bitch.”

“Ahhh.”

“I’ve been thinking, but I don’t want to build up some theory in my head, make an assumption and embarrass myself.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking, and I’ll tell you if you’re wrong.”

“She’s really good at reading body language, right?  She could read Brian even when he was blurred by his darkness with a mask on.  It’s, what, some kind of minor power of hers?”

“Some of it’s natural ability.  Some of it’s, yeah, that her power adjusted how she thinks.  So she can communicate better with her dogs.”

“Right,” I glanced down the hall to where the others were talking.  Or rather, where Brian and Alec were talking and Bitch was standing there.  “That’s the thing.  What I’m thinking is… maybe when her power gave her the ability to understand dogs, it overwrote something else?  Fucked up her ability to deal with people?”

Lisa turned and got some mugs out of the cupboard.  She gave me an apologetic half-smile. “Yeah.  Something like that.”

“So, what, she can’t read expressions, or tone?”

“All the cues we give to others as a part of regular conversation?  She doesn’t get them, she probably couldn’t learn them with a year of concerted effort.  It’s not just that she doesn’t get it… the most basic interactions are messed up by the canine psychology that’s hardwired into her head.  You smile at her and ask her how she’s doing, her first thought is that you’re baring your teeth at her in anger, and she has to remind herself you aren’t.  But even after that, she’s probably wondering if you were being sarcastic, or condescending, or kind, or whatever.  She knows you aren’t shouting at her from your tone of voice, but we don’t always raise our voices when we’re angry, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And she falls back on the one thing she does get, canine behavior, because it does work on a level.  Bids for dominance, eye contact, pack heirarchies and establishing territory, all adjusted and adapted to her human life.”

“So she’s not really a sociopath.”

“No, not so much.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”  I realized belatedly, that I sounded accusatory.  Maybe I was right to.

“Because she’d leave if she heard about it, and for reasons I don’t know, the boss wants her to stick with us.  She’s spent her whole life accepting the fact that she had a shitty childhood, and it made her into a screwed up person.  Her dogs are the only thing that’s normal and right for her.  If she found out that the reason she’s so messed up is the very same thing that makes her so close to her dogs?”

She let the thought hang.

“Got it,” I replied.

“So not another word of this, please, unless it’s absolutely necessary and you’re absolutely, one-hundred percent positive she’s not going to overhear.”

“Do the others know?”

“I don’t think it would change much, and I don’t trust those two to keep a secret.  Brian is… I don’t want to say too honest.  But he’s transparent, and Bitch can read him.  Alec would forget and let it slip as part of a joke.  He doesn’t get the gravity of stuff, sometimes.”

“Okay.”

She poured a cup and stirred it, then handed me a mug of Ovaltine.  She got the other mugs arranged on a tray, and carried it through to the living room.  I stayed where I was, to think.

I was reminded of a non-fiction book I’d read where a kid got halfway through high school before his teachers realized he was illiterate.  He did it by being the class clown, by acting out.  Was Bitch the same?  The violence and hostility could be a cover to distract from her own inability to interact, at least partially.  I guessed a fair bit of it was genuine, though.  She had had a crappy childhood, she had lived on the streets and had fought tooth and nail to get by and avoid arrest.

But at the end of the day?  As awkward as I felt in day to day interactions?  She was a hundred times worse off.

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Hive 5.7

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“Lung’s there,” I echoed, as much to let Sundancer and Labyrinth know as to help myself process the idea.

“He’s with Kaiser.  I can’t get to them.  Kaiser blocked the door with giant knives.”

“Ignore Lung!” I stressed.  If Kaiser wanted to go it alone, he could reap the consequences.  “Priorities are Newter and Oni Lee!  Can you get upstairs to rescue Newter?”

“I can’t ride Brutus in there, I’d have to dismount.”

“Then draw him outside!  Watch your back!”

I hung up, shoved the phone into the compartment behind my back, and drew my baton and knife.

“What are you doing?” Sundancer asked.

“Oni Lee’s a freaking assassin.  I can’t leave Bitch on her own.”

I didn’t wait another second.  I bolted for the warehouse, drawing more bugs from the surroundings to help back me up.

Bitch, still riding Brutus, came rushing out the loading bay door, Judas only a step behind.  They skidded to a stop, facing the building.  Through the hole the explosion had made in the wall, I saw Angelica climbing up the stairs.

As Angelica reached the top of the stairs, Judas lunged up and through the windows at the opposite end of the second floor hallway, trapping Oni Lee in between them.

Oni Lee barely seemed to care.  I could see him in his black bodysuit with belts and bandoleers of knives on it, his mask with the demonic face and leering, fanged, ear-to-ear grin.  He glanced at one dog, then the other, then looked out the window.

I knew his power was a hybrid between duplicating himself and teleportation.  He could teleport, but when he did, he left a body behind that could act autonomously for a few seconds.  So when I saw him glance out the window, I followed his line of sight, and saw he had already appeared just behind Bitch, half-crouching on Brutus’ back, one hand on a hook of bone to help him balance.  There was a flash of steel in his other hand as he reached around her throat with a blade.

“Bitch!” I screamed.  It didn’t matter.  At the same time as I opened my mouth, a red dot and a mist of red appeared out of the back of his head.  A split second later, another dot and spray of red appeared on his back, around his heart was.  He fell on top of Bitch’s shoulder, limp, then collapsed to the ground.

A second later, he exploded into an opaque cloud of white ash, ten feet across.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw the dark silhouettes of Coil’s men lying down on the edge of the rooftop.  One had a pair of binoculars, the other was set up behind a long rifle with a prominent scope.  A sniper team.

Anyone else would be dead by now, but the fact that the body had exploded into dust meant it was just a clone, a leftover remaining behind after Oni Lee had teleported away.  He probably wasn’t remaining in one place for more than a second.  My bet was that he was appearing, immediately looking for a new target or vantage point, then making a quick exit, leaving the clone to do the deed.

I reached Bitch and cast a nervous glance over my shoulder for Oni Lee. “You okay?”

“Felt the fucking steel on my throat,” she rubbed her throat as if she was checking it was okay.  “Where’d he go?”

I saw Oni Lee for only a fraction of a second, as he fell from the roof of the warehouse, before he exploded into another cloud of white dust.  Another point for the sniper team.  Why had he been up there?  Who or what had he been trying to see?

“The snipers,” I breathed, whirling around.

Where the sniper team had been, there were four figures now.  I saw the rifle fall from the edge of the roof as the two soldiers struggled with a pair of Oni Lees.  Then, puff, the clones were gone, and there was enough white dust around them that they wouldn’t be drawing a bead on him again, even if they hadn’t lost the rifle.

But where had he gone from there?  I looked around, feeling the panic begin to set in.

Brutus made a roaring sound somewhere between a howl and a growl, not quite recognizable as either.  He reared like a panicked horse, and I saw Oni Lee drop from the side of his head, land in a crouch, and lunge for me, a knife in each hand.

I swatted at his hands with my baton, sending one knife flying through the air and breaking his stride.  It didn’t matter.  Less than a second later, he was dust.  He’d teleported.

Hands seized me from behind, in a rough nelson hold, pulling my arms out of the way as another Oni Lee materialized out of the dust in front of me, ready to capitalize on my inability to defend myself.

Knowing he wasn’t about to let go of me, I brought both my legs up in a kick at Oni Lee’s stomach.  They connected and he doubled over.

Brutus lunged forward, biting at him before he could recover.  Both the Oni Lee that was holding me and the one clasped in Brutus’ jaws turned to carbon ash, adding to the volume of the opaque, gritty white cloud that surrounded us.  As Bitch managed to get Brutus under control I saw his face.  One of his eyes was in ruins, and volumes of blood and other liquids were flowing from it.

“Fuck this,” I growled, drawing the bugs out from my costume, and retrieving the ones I’d had in the building.  I spread them around, reaching for him, hoping for some sort of early warning.

No sooner the thought crossed my mind than the silhouette of a figure appeared twenty feet to my right.  He whipped his arm in my direction, and I didn’t have any time to do much more than turn in his direction before something collided with my head.  I stumbled and fell over backwards.

In the instant I toppled over, I had the presence of mind to tuck my chin against my chest so I wouldn’t add to my concussion.  The armor covering my shoulders took the worst of the impact.

As I lay there, trying to parse what had just happened, I realized that a small knife was embedded in the armored section of my mask, cracking the lens.  A throwing knife?  I pulled it free and pulled myself to my feet.  I had enough bugs around me now that I could be sure he wasn’t attacking us.  That just raised the question of where he was.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

“Fucker stabbed me in the arm!”

If that’s the worst injury we get away with today, we can count ourselves lucky.  I headed out of the cloud that surrounded us, hoping to get a better sense of the battlefield.

I got out just in time to see Oni Lee tackling one of Coil’s snipers off the edge of the roof.  Oni Lee disappeared in a cloud of white before he hit the ground.  I was pretty sure the sniper hadn’t.

Sundancer was crumpled over, Labyrinth holding her shoulders.

This was not going well.

Oni Lee appeared thirty feet away from me, standing just to my left and behind me.  My bugs gave me a sense of his position before anything else, and I threw myself to one side.  I thought maybe I saw the shape of one of his throwing knives pass through the air where I’d been standing, but I wasn’t seeing very well with a cracked lens on my mask.

At my command, The bugs that had alerted me to his position gathered on him and began biting and stinging.

Then I noticed something weird.  More bugs popped into existence in the midst of the cloud, near Sundancer and Labyrinth.  I felt the original bugs perish as they exploded into ash.

He was taking them with him.  I don’t think he could help it.

I could track his movements.

“Bitch!  Here!” I shouted.

She lunged out of the cloud, still astride Brutus, pulling up short to avoid trampling me.

“I can see where he’s teleporting,” I told her, “Get Judas and Angelica.”

She whistled, long and piercing.  As if in response, Oni Lee appeared just a few feet away.

“Behind you!” I pointed.

Brutus whipped around, snapping and snarling, and Oni Lee had to backpedal to escape being caught in the mutant’s jaws.  He disappeared just a second later.

“Get one dog near those guys,” I pointed to Sundancer and Labyrinth, “We should join them asap.”

She nodded, whistled, and pointed.  No sooner did Judas and Angelica arrive at our sides than Judas headed off to his next destination.  Bitch offered me a hand.

I gratefully took it, letting her help me up onto Brutus’ back.

As we approached Sundancer and Labyrinth, the sidewalks on either side of us dropped out of existence, leaving only a bottomless pit where they had been.

“The fuck?” I murmured.

Then the buildings began to rise in height, some leaning over the street and joining with the others in grotesque arches and bridges.  Brickwork stretched and extended into the alleyways, closing them off.

Then windows began to shrink and warp, leaving only flat expanses of brick, concrete and stucco for the building faces.  Under our feet, the road began to shift in color, with some patches becoming paler, and others darkening.  They sharpened in definition as they settled into an alabaster white and jet back.  A checkerboard?

Brutus had to leap out of the way as one of the squares of the checkerboard suddenly rose to a height of ten feet.  As if in response, other squares began to rise and fall, each to varying, almost random heights.

I was almost dismounted as another square appeared in a wall and slid out of the side of the building in a thirty foot long horizontal pillar.

We reached safe haven, an expanse of unaffected ground, thirty feet across, with two figures in the center.  Sundancer and… Labyrinth.

“This is you?” I asked Labyrinth, awed, as I climbed down off Brutus.

She didn’t reply.  Instead, she reached out and touched the side of my chin.

The images of arches, pillars and checkerboard patterns fell away like a house of cards.

“Hallucinations,” I spoke, as Labyrinth made a waving gesture towards Bitch’s head.  She looked at me and shook her head slowly.

“They’re not hallucinations?” I asked.

She didn’t reply.

“You can’t explain because you can’t or don’t talk,” I realized, speaking my thoughts aloud.

Oni Lee appeared a few feet away.  I whirled and pointed, “There!”

He was stumbling, moving to avoid something that wasn’t there.  He was still there, trying to get his balance, as I felt more bugs appear at another point on the opposite side of us.  Only he appeared fifteen feet in the air, fell, and landed in an awkward position, falling over.

“Bitch!” I pointed.

She whistled and pointed to send Angelica.  Oni Lee’s response was delayed, as if he couldn’t even see her approaching, at first.  I felt more bugs pop into existence a second before she set her jaws on him.

“There!”

Bitch sent Judas next.  Oni Lee’s reaction was even slower, but he had time to throw himself onto his back, flinging two throwing knives into Judas’ face and shoulder before he disappeared.

“Over there!” I pointed as he reappeared.

Bitch didn’t even have time to give a command before there was a sound like a champagne cork being popped.  Oni Lee screamed as one of his shins exploded in a spray of blood.

I felt him reappear somewhere else, collapsing to the ground, while his predecessor endured having the kneecap on its good leg shot out.

I followed the sound of a chamber being reloaded to spot Coil’s sniper.  He was lying on his side at the foot of the building, one arm outstretched to hold his rifle steady.  His right leg was bent the wrong way.

He’d been knocked off a three story building, had a broken leg at the very least, and had still managed to retrieve, load and fire his rifle?

If he was willing to be that professional, I could damn well play spotter for him.

“There!” I pointed in Oni Lee’s direction.  On the warehouse again.

There were two more muted popping sounds, and I could see Oni Lee spin in a pirouette of sorts as a shot clipped him, before he collapsed to the rooftop.

He exploded in a cloud of ash once again.  Except I hadn’t felt him appear anywhere.

“He’s gone,” I said, “Out of my range.”

Sundancer looked up at me, one gloved hand on her shoulder.  “Good,” she managed to answer.

“You okay?”

“He gouged my shoulder.  I’ll need stitches, but it’s not the worst injury I’ve had.”

“Okay.  Uh, man, Coil’s guy,” I spoke, trying hard to organize my thoughts and priorities with the adrenaline that was pumping through me, “You going to be alright?”

“Yeah,” he rasped, then he coughed.

I’d have to take him at his word.

“Labyrinth, watch him.  Make sure he keeps breathing and that his buddy knows where he is,” I said, “Sundancer, Bitch, we’ve gotta go help Newter.”

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Hive 5.6

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However effective Bitch’s power play might have been, it didn’t do much to help the tension between the factions making up our group.  It hadn’t been just Kaiser that got spooked and sprayed with blood.  Worst case scenario, if a fight broke out in the group, I was worried that hard feelings from that one thing could set others against us.

I decided to try to remedy that.  The Travelers seemed to be the only group present where there wasn’t some drama already mucking the waters.

“Hey,” I slowed my pace so I could talk to the girl from the Travelers, “What’s your name?”

“My codename?”

“Yeah.”

“Sundancer.”

“I’m going by Skitter.  Couldn’t decide on a name so the media sort of picked one for me.”

“You’re one of the Outsiders, right?”

“Undersiders.  I’m new to the team, honestly, but they’re alright.”

“Uh huh.”  She looked in Bitch’s direction.

“Not as bad as you’d think,” I said, smiling.  She couldn’t see me smile, with my mask covering my mouth, but I did hope she could hear the humor in my tone.  “How’s life among the Travelers?”

She seemed caught off guard at the question.  It took her a few seconds to decide how to respond.  “Intense.  Violent.  Lonely.”

The answer surprised me.  She chose the word intense rather than exciting, but that wasn’t the strangest part of her answer.  “Lonely?  I wouldn’t think that was the case, spending time with teammates.”

She shrugged, “There’s stuff going on that makes hanging out less fun than it should be.  I’m not going to explain it, so don’t ask.”

I raised my hands, palms up, stopping her, “Wasn’t going to.  I was just curious what it’s like for other teams, since I’m fairly new to this.”

She relaxed a bit at that.  “It’s not just the… I can’t think of a word better than drama… but drama sounds like such an understatement.  Whatever.  It’s not the other stuff that’s going on, it’s that we’re constantly moving, rarely spending more than a week in one place, you know?”

“I don’t,” I admitted.  I fudged the truth a little, just to be safe, “I moved twice as a kid, but I was too young to remember it.  For the most part, I grew up here.”

“It gets old, having to-” she stopped talking as I was suddenly pushed to one side.  The tip of Newter’s tail pressed against the center of my chest and moved me back, pushed me against the hood of a dilapidated old car.

“Hey,” I grunted, but he shook his head, pressed a finger to his lip.  His blue eyes bored into mine.  They were weird eyes.  No whites, just azure blue irises that extended from corner to corner, with rectangular, horizontal pupils.

I looked at the others, and they were all moving into cover.  Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had all ducked into an alleyway.  Bitch and her dogs were disappearing around the far corner of the same building, making only the scratching noise of claws against concrete.

Ahead of us, a trio of people in ABB colors crossed the street.  A guy and a girl who looked like they might have been gang members before Bakuda’s hardcore recruitment drive were talking.  A teen who was about my age trailed behind them, looking too scared and worn out to be anything but one of the new recruits.  They were all armed.  A machete dangled from the male thug’s hand, while the girl was toying with a handgun.  The scared looking kid had a baseball bat with nails hammered into it.  People really did that?  The nail-studded baseball bat?

Just behind them was the building that had to be our target.  It was a warehouse, dirty gray, with the letters ‘ABB’ spray painted on and around the loading bay door in red and green in an elaborate style.

When the patrol was gone, Newter spoke, “They’ve got patrols, and they’ve tagged the building.  That’ll be our target, today.”  He checked his watch, “Two minutes until it’s time to move.”

“My girls and I will circle around,” Kaiser stated from the cover of the alleyway, “Attack from another direction.”

“Hey, no,” I replied, “That’s not the deal.  We’re in groups like this for a reason, and that reason flies out the window if we split up like that.”

“I didn’t ask your permission,” Kaiser replied, his voice cool.  Without waiting for a response, he turned to leave, Fenja and Menja following him.

“Are we going to stop them?” I asked.

“I could catch up to them,” Bitch told us, as she rode Brutus back towards our group.

Newter shook his head, thin lips pressed into a line that only accented his strange appearance, “Not worth it, and dangerous to fight amongst ourselves in enemy territory.  We don’t have time, anyways.”

“Bitch, can you call Grue and Tattletale, let them know?” I asked.  “They can take measures if they need to.”

She nodded and got her cell phone out.

While Bitch made the call, Newter beckoned the others to gather in a huddle.  “Let’s talk plan of attack.  Skitter, Bitch, you two have the most experience dealing with these guys, so start us off.”

I glanced at Bitch.  She was busy with the call, and she had been out of action during our last encounter with the ABB, which left her kind of in the dark as far as Bakuda went.  It was up to me.

I silently cleared my throat, then I spoke up, “Bakuda likes to set traps, and if this place is important enough to patrol, it’s important enough to have some traps.  Let me send my bugs in first.  I can get the lay of the land, and the bugs will also confuse and distract anyone inside, which should make things easier on you guys.”

Newter nodded once, “Okay.  That’s step one.  Bitch, can you and your dogs hit the ground floor?  I’ll go in the second floor window.”

Bitch gave him a curt nod in response.

“The bugs won’t bite her?” Newter asked.

“No,” I answered, “Won’t bite you either.”

“They couldn’t if they tried,” Newter answered me, smiling.  Funny, if you looked past the odd appearance – the blue hair, the weird eyes, the orange skin and the tail, he was actually a pretty good looking guy.

“Sundancer, what can you do?” Newter asked.

“I guess you could say I’m artillery,” Sundancer replied, “But I’ve got the same problem Ballistic does – er, my other teammate.  I’m not sure I can use my power without hurting a lot of people really badly.”

“Then stay back with Labyrinth.  You two be ready to cover our retreat or move in if we run into trouble,” Newter replied.

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” I commented.

“Maybe some of Faultline has rubbed off on me.”  He smiled.  Then he glanced at his watch, “Twenty seconds.”

Newter glanced at the two soldiers Coil had sent, “You two, can you-”

“We’re taking a position on this rooftop, here,” the shorter of the two men replied, pointing up to the two story duplex next to us.  “We’ll support you with cover fire.”

“Uh, good.  Try not to kill anyone,” Newter said, checking his watch again, “Five seconds.  Skitter?  Start us off?”

I reached out to all the bugs I’d gathered, minus the ones I was keeping beneath my costume.  I directed them towards the side of the building we were facing.

The swarm swept in through windows that were open or broken and the one open door on the side of the building, flowing into the hallways.  I made sure to spread them out to cover every surface, feeling for anything that was out-of-place or unusual.  There were a fair number of people inside, which wasn’t a huge surprise, but my bugs were making a lot of contact with bare skin.  I realized the people gathered in the open area of the warehouse’s ground floor were nearly naked.  Stripped down to their underwear.  It was so unexpected that it threw me off my stride.

I shook my head.  I couldn’t afford to get distracted.  Bakuda probably used metals and plastics, and to the superfine senses of the bugs, that was an entirely different texture from the walls.  I tried to filter out the usual stuff and get a feel for just the plastic or metal things.  Just a few feet in from the entrance, I found two dome-shaped bulges on either side of the stairwell that led to the second floor, metal and plastic.

“There’s something there,” I said.  “Give me a second.”

I took a page out of Grue’s playbook and gathered a group of bugs together into a densely packed, vaguely humanoid shape.  I moved that collection of bugs through the doors and to the place where the little domes sat.

The explosion blew a fair sized chunk out of the exterior wall of the building closest to us.  The people inside, already nervous at the influx of bugs, started scattering, screaming, running for the exits.

“Holy shit!” Newter’s eyes went wide.

“Motion detectors, I think,” I said, “Or proximity activated.  My bugs wouldn’t normally set them off, had to fool them.”

The ground was too hard for landmines, so I focused on having the remainder of the bugs sweep through the rest of the building, skimming the surfaces and looking for more trouble.  I found two more, checked nobody was near, and used the same method to detonate them.  The plumes of flame, smoke and debris were visible from where we crouched.

“Twenty or thirty people on the ground floor, unarmed and half naked, ten in upstairs office, armed,” I said, “Route is as clear of traps as I can get it.  Go!”

Bitch lunged into action, Newter only a few steps behind.  He half-ran, half-crawled, his tail whipping around behind him, presumably to help keep his balance.

As Bitch had her dogs crash into and through the closed metal loading bay door, Newter intercepted the first few people to leave through the fire exit door on the side of the building.  He leaped to close fifteen foot gaps as fast as I could have thrown a punch, moving from one person to the next, dropping each of them in an instant.  Lots of women in that group, and I could confirm with my eyes what my bugs had told me – nine out of ten of the people in that group, a mix of Asian men and women, were only wearing their underwear.  Slave trafficking?  Prostitution?  Something darker?  I felt my skin crawl.

As he darted up the side of the building and slipped into an open window like a bolt of greased lightning, I felt Newter brush past several with my bugs.  Each bug that came into contact with him dropped off the wall or out of the sky, falling to the ground, alive but stunned.

I remembered reading about him on the web.  Information had been scarce, since Faultline’s crew weren’t the types of villain to appear in the papers or on TV, and the concrete details that were out there had been hard to pick apart from the speculation.  What I did know was that his bodily fluids were potent hallucinogens.  Even the sweat that accumulated on his skin was apparently enough to send someone off to la-la land, taking only a few seconds for it to be absorbed through the skin.

I focused my attention on tracking what was happening inside the building.  Newter was on the second floor, probably dodging gunfire as he moved closer to the group of people who had been in the upstairs office.  I had my bugs cluster around them, biting their hands and faces.  I sent them crawling into noses, ears and mouths to disrupt the aim of the people who might shoot Newter.

Kaiser, Fenja and Menja were attacking from the side of the building opposite us.  They had drawn the attention of most of the armed agents and patrols, leaving Bitch and her dogs stranded in the midst of one or two dozen unarmed, unclothed, panicked people.  From what my bugs were sensing, she was giving lots of commands to her dogs.

I realized, belatedly, that someone had blocked off the route Bitch might have taken to reach the fighting.  The edges of the offending barrier were thin, sharp.  Blades?  That meant Kaiser would be the one who had blocked her.  Was it intentional, or had he been cutting off the ABB’s escape routes?

I couldn’t sense what Newter was doing since my bugs couldn’t touch him, but I could feel the movement of the air that followed in his wake, I could track the locations of the bugs he came into contact with before they were brought down by the drugs, and I knew the men were collapsing as Newter moved into their midst and knocked each of them out with a touch.  One or two even collapsed without him touching them.  Something else?  Blood?  Spit?

Only one remained standing.  He and Newter circled one another.  My bugs weren’t having much effect on him, since he was wearing a bandanna or something over his face.

No, wait, there was a second person, just behind Newter.  How had I not noticed him?

Then the first disappeared, and I knew.

I grabbed my phone, accessed the contacts, and auto-dialed Bitch.

“Come on, answer, answer,” I whispered at the phone.

Then a handful of my bugs were stunned and a few more squashed as Newter collapsed on top of them.  I directed most of the bugs in the building to distract the attacker, hoping to buy Newter enough time to get away.  It wasn’t working – he wasn’t moving.

“Fuck! Answer, Bitch!”

“What’s wrong?” Sundancer asked.

“Newter’s hurt.”

Labyrinth put her hand on my shoulder, half-spun me to face her.  She didn’t say a word, her expression barely changed behind the cloth of her mask, but it was still the closest I’d seen to an emotional response from her.

I would have said something, but Bitch chose that same second to pick up.

“Bitch!  Second floor, Newter’s wounded, Oni Lee is in the building.”

There was a long pause before she replied, “Lung’s here too.”

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